Next step in journalistic and academic collaboration: Tracking the gig economy

By Eliane Mitchell

I n today’s gig economy, drivers like Jiang Huang, a 61-year-old Uber driver and Chinese-American living in San Jose, can work 80 hours a week, without receiving traditional employee benefits.

Huang relies on the Affordable Care Act’s provisions for low-wage workers. But now, under the Trump administration, even these benefits are at risk.

At a panel on Friday at Stanford University, academics and journalists discussed the future of contract work, the inequalities it might perpetuate, and the difficulties of tracking discrimination data in contracted employer-employee relationships.

The increases in contract work really show how the level of stability is changing in today’s work places, said panelist Chris Benner, a professor at UC Berkeley and director of the Everett Program for Technology and Social Change.

“We forget that there is a tremendous churn in the labor market,” Benner said. “A third of the labor force out there is in a different job at the end of the year, than they were at the beginning of the year.”

The gig economy has another negative side effect — the hiring of contract workers can circumvent regulations, the panelists and other experts said.

For example, franchises that contract work out for services do not have to pay their workers overtime, or provide them health care and retirement benefits, said Professor Richard Thompson Ford, an expert on employment discrimination at Stanford University, in a separate conversation.

But for Uber driver Huang, his contract job has upsides too.

“It has unlimited working time, I can work more, [for] more and more money to support myself,” Huang said. Huang believes he has few options when it comes to work. “I don’t have other skills [for] working for other jobs.”

However, recent reports have shown that the gig economy and independent contracting might perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequalities, rather than resolve them.

“One in three [contract workers for Silicon valley companies] fall below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level,” according to Benner’s report conducted with UC Berkeley.

On top of this, systematic discrimination in temp hiring is hard to regulate, said Will Evans, a journalist who reported that Automation Personnel Services discriminated against minorities in temp hiring.

“One of the most striking things were the code words, to me, and that really showed how systematic [the discrimination] was,” Evans said, referring to his report. Using terms like “country boys” for white people, “heavies” for men, “small hands” for women, “Code 2” for black workers, and “feos” for Latinos, employers contracting out work, Evans found, may circumvent anti-discrimination laws.

“It created a system where it makes discrimination easy and systematic,” Evans added.

But it’s hard to track employers’ discriminatory practices and hold them accountable for the inequalities they may perpetuate, the panelists said.

It doesn’t help that the Trump administration has threatened cuts to funding the Census Bureau, in addition to the fact that many companies keep their employment data secret, pointed out one member of the audience.

“[This just shows that] journalists and researchers and data folks [will have to] work together to find innovative new solutions and just wire around the lack of data,” said the moderator of the discussion, Ziva Branstetter, a senior editor at Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

“We need to think about… our sources of data that we can create,” Branstetter said.

Eliane Mitchell is a junior studying philosophy at Stanford University and part of a journalism class covering the Mind to Mind symposium.

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