Labor Dept. Report Won’t Hinder Gig Economy Legislation (Corrected)

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By Tyrone Richardson

A recent Labor Department report finding a decline in gig workers won’t likely derail congressional hearings and legislation aimed at offering protections for the workforce, lawmakers and political observers told Bloomberg Law.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee, says Congress still needs to have conversations about issues affecting the gig workforce.

“The discussion we need to have about the workplace of the 21st century is bigger than just that,” Byrne told Bloomberg Law. “I don’t care if you are in a traditional occupation in a traditional industry, it has all changed. So, I think we still need to have the conversation. It’s better informed by having the BLS data, but I don’t think it means we don’t have the conversation.”

Education and the Workforce Ranking Member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) had similar thoughts, telling Bloomberg Law that the June 7 Bureau of Labor Statistics report didn’t offer details that would “reduce the need to continue to look into” the gig workforce.

The report found that gig and other contingent jobs shrunk to 10.1 percent of the nation’s workforce, down from 10.7 percent in the agency’s previous study in 2005. The new findings contradict some industry reports finding that up to a third of the nation’s workers are doing some gig jobs. But the report doesn’t include workers who use part-time gigs to supplement income from more traditional jobs.

There’s optimism that a more detailed snapshot of the gig workplace will come this summer when the BLS releases findings from four survey questions withheld from the June 7 study. The data will identify workers who found work by sharing rides, cleaning houses, and delivering food through apps or websites.

Gig workers are often linked directly with customers through applications such as Uber and Lyft for ride-hailing, Instacart for grocery delivery, and TaskRabbit for home services.

BLS Data Don’t Thwart Talks

Scott and Byrne join some industry advocates who told Bloomberg Law there remains a need to update some federal labor laws dating back to the 1930s. Legislative action would also include shaping policies to offer gig workers benefits and protections offered to traditional employees.

Most gig workers are treated like independent contractors. As such, they often miss out on traditional employee protections, including minimum wage and overtime pay, benefits, and workers’ compensation.

The release of the June 7 report “will not slow down the discussions about providing benefits and legislative solutions,” Michael Lotito, an attorney with management-side firm Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg Law. “Regardless of what the study shows you still have” some issues such as continued litigation about gig economy worker rights, he said.

The findings don’t “change the fundamental idea that we need a conversation about how to build a new social safety net for these workers,” said Vikrum Aiyer, a policy director for online delivery service Postmates.

Calls have grown for state and federal policy makers to institute laws for the workforce.

“You have 10 percent, 15 million workers who are in alternative work arrangements and as the BLS survey shows they have less ability to access core benefits that traditional workers enjoy like healthcare,” Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, told Bloomberg Law.

In recent years, there have been many congressional hearings and state-level bills advocating for workers. The House Small Business Committee held a hearing June 6 about how better access to financing and health care can help millennials thrive in the gig economy.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, has also spoken about being open to updating federal laws for the gig workforce. The gig economy could come up during a June 21 subcommittee hearing titled “Growth, Opportunity, and Change in the U.S. Labor Market and the American Workforce: A Review of Current Developments, Trends, and Statistics.”

The gig economy could be the subject of more hearings as the House panel seeks ways to boost job opportunities.

“Expanding the labor market and encouraging innovation have been top priorities of the Education and Workforce Committee and remain top priorities,” committee spokeswoman Kelley McNabb told Bloomberg Law.

States such as New York, New Jersey, and Washington are considering legislation intended to provide gig workers with portable benefits that can travel with them from job to job.

Calls for More BLS Data on Gig Workers

Even though lawmakers are poised to move forward despite the BLS data showing a shrinkage of the workforce, some are asking for more data. Among those are Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who believes the summer’s BLS report will help him “have a better understanding” of the workforce, an official in his office told Bloomberg Law.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a vocal advocate for the gig workplace, agrees. Warner June 13 sent a letter to the BLS urging it to provide more details about the workforce and on a regular basis. The June 7 report was the first in-depth snapshot of the gig workforce since 2005, a report that had been delayed due to BLS budget shortfalls.

“There is no official measure of supplemental work. There is little insight into how workers assemble many different kinds of work arrangements to amass sources of income and livelihood,” Warner wrote. “Without these additional data, it is difficult to help this dynamic segment of workers receive more training and resources, access a system of portable benefits they can carry from job to job, or file their taxes and claim deductions and credits.”

Todd, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is co-sponsoring Warner’s bill, the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act (S. 1251, H.R. 2685). The bill would use a DOL grant program to help nonprofits and local governments experiment with portable benefits for gig workers. The legislation has stalled since it was assigned to the HELP Committee last year.

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