Sohail Rana has driven passengers around New York City for 25 years, first as a taxi driver, then for black-car companies, and now for Uber. He works around 60 hours a week and has no plans to stop working, partially because he can’t afford to stop. “I have no health insurance, no retirement, no other benefits, so I have to keep working,” he told me. When he gets sick, he goes to the emergency room, and loses pay because he’s not working. Recently, he began volunteering with the Independent Drivers Guild, an affiliate of the Machinists Union, to help figure out a way for drivers like him to get some sort of benefits. “As a human being, if you start a job, you want to work where you can get a pension one day, a 401(k), health insurance,” he told me. “Getting paid if you are sick or have to take time off—those are all basic needs.”
Rana is one of the 23 million Americans who work in the gig economy are making money but missing out on the other standard benefits of having jobs: health care, primarily, but also paid sick leave and worker’s compensation as well. While there are a handful of gig-economy platforms (they are not technically employers) that have started to offer ways for the contract workers who use their sites to get benefits, the efforts are paltry at best. Care.com, which connects families with caregivers like nannies, said last year that it would levy a transaction fee on payments that would provide up to $500 a year for workers to use for health care, transportation, or other expenses. But $500 doesn’t go very far towards covering medical expenses for a year. Uber is working with Aon, an insurer, to allow drivers to pay a certain fee per mile, in exchange for which they will receive medical coverage and disability payments in the case of an accident while working. But the Uber program is optional and requires drivers to pay out-of-pocket, which together reduce sign-ups. The platforms are skittish about providing real benefits to workers, because they worry that doing so will result in their being required to classify the workers as employees, rather than independent contractors, which would put them on the hook for more tax liabilities and various labor regulations.