Who’s an Employee in the Sharing Economy?

Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr
Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr

One of the hottest topics in city news this week is that suits against two of the U.S.’s biggest sharing economy players, Lyft and Uber, will be heard by juries. The question at hand? Whether the people who drive users around in their cars should be considered employees rather than independent contractors with the two giant companies.

Lyft and Uber say that their drivers don’t count as employees because they can work whenever they want and however often they want. Drivers say they are employees because the rates they can charge are set by the companies and they can be fired for not following the rules. The decisions in these cases could potentially affect the many other sharing economy companies out there, such as Airbnb and car sharing services.

The question of fair pay and employee benefits stretches far past Lyft, Uber, and the sharing economy of course. Large employers of minimum wage workers like Walmart and fast food companies have come under fire for their policies such as split shifts and on-call schedules that make it hard for workers to predict what their schedules will be ahead of time or whether they’ll have any work that day. And such workers may or may not receive healthcare and other benefits.

But what interests me is the fact that the sharing economy companies are so intimately integrated with and dependent upon metropolitan regions, making them a large thread in the city/suburb economic fabric. There’s a certain role that these companies could be playing to grow economic equity within the region, and they could be using their mantra of “innovation” to dream big when it comes to being a model employer for their employees. Why can’t the language of the sharing economy include the concepts of shared wealth, shared prosperity, and shared well-being? Perhaps those are the sorts of “disruptive” ideas we should be putting on the creative drawing board in this day and age.

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