‘Share' Businesses Huddle With Lawmakers on Worker Issues

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By Chris Opfer

Nov. 5 — Lyft Inc., Airbnb and Handy Technologies Inc. were among a group of the sharing economy's heaviest hitters who recently met with lawmakers in Washington to discuss a variety of issues, including the possibility of experimenting with how they classify workers for tax and employment purposes.

“We've had in the room within the last couple weeks the biggest of the players, along with Republicans and Democrats,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 5. That includes ride-share operator Lyft, online accommodations marketplace Airbnb, and Handy, the on-demand residential cleaning and repair service provider, company representatives confirmed.

Swalwell said one of the ideas the businesses discussed with a bipartisan group of 10 or so lawmakers was a regulatory “sandbox” or “safe harbor” period in which they could tinker with offering training and different types of benefits to workers without those moves being counted against them for tax and employment classification purposes.

The companies involved in the meeting have helped usher in a new wave of businesses that focus largely on cutting out the middleman in commercial transactions. Some sharing businesses have also faced scrutiny—and litigation—for classifying their workers as independent contractors who are not eligible for automatic tax withholding, workers' compensation benefits, unemployment insurance, minimum wages and overtime pay.

Swalwell, who co-chairs the recently created sharing economy caucus with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said that has him looking for ways to update a maze of existing labor and tax laws to address the unique issues raised by new ways of doing business.

Portable Benefits Part of Sandbox

Swalwell said he and other lawmakers would like to give the companies an opportunity to explore different models, like a “portable benefits” system in which employers pay into a benefits fund based on the number of hours their contractors work.

“We would tell employers that, if you were to use portable benefits during this period, that would not be used against you in the determination of whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee,” Swalwell said, adding that the deal would be limited to a defined period of perhaps one or two years. “I don't think anything could be worse than what we have right now, which is complete uncertainty,” he said.

Although Republicans generally favor lifting regulatory burdens for employers, many lawmakers are still trying to figure out where they stand on sharing and “gig” economy issues. The House Nov. 4 voted 181-237 against a transportation bill amendment sponsored by Swalwell and Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) that would have allowed the use of federal funds to support ride-sharing programs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in Washington at copfer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com