But for the half who stayed, some parts of the job are easier. Rather than using their own cars to make deliveries, they use vehicles provided by the dispensary. The dispensary withholds their taxes, so they get to avoid the April panic that’s become a rite of passage for gig-economy workers. Because of California labor laws, if they work shifts that last more than eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, they receive overtime pay. Their shifts follow a regular schedule now, replacing the free-for-all that would happen in the past when new shifts were posted (Mondays at 4:20 p.m., of course).
Matthew Johnson, 24, is one of the employees who stayed on after the transition. He’d been driving for companies like DoorDash and Grubhub before he started working for Perennial, so he was accustomed to being an independent contractor. But he likes the predictability, job security, and guaranteed hours of being an employee. He has even moved up the job ladder: As an employee keyed in to what was happening around the office, he started doing some events with Eaze, the start-up that works with Perennial and other dispensaries to manage deliveries. He showed his bosses that he was a hard and dedicated worker, and was able to suggest some tweaks to the platform that made it run more smoothly. He got a promotion, and now, in addition to driving, he also manages customer-support service and operations for Perennial.
Johnson now thinks all gig companies should switch to the employee model. “I think that with the amount of hours people work, and the type of hard work they put in for these companies, they deserve to be employees,” he told me. “Sometimes the companies just throw them away, like they’re disposable.”
The online gig economy’s “race to the bottom”
But Earl Kim, who started at Perennial as a driver and now also works in operations and management, is less sure that the change has been positive. Some workers don’t like that there are fewer hours available, and that shifts are more regimented, he said. Before, if you finished your shift early, you could leave; now you are getting paid by the hour, rather than by how much work you complete in a period of time.
Employers are divided on the change, too, largely because categorizing workers as employees has a much higher up-front cost to companies. Having employees means more meetings, more tracking of people’s progress, more coaching workers who might need improvement, more hoops to jump through when you want to fire someone.
Kiloh, the UCBA president who also owns the Higher Path cannabis collective in Los Angeles, told me the switch increased his costs by 12 to 15 percent—a huge amount in a competitive industry. But he’s targeting older customers, and he’s found they like interacting with trained employees who know the product well and take on responsibility for any questions they might have. “Customers are saying, ‘I like this more, these people represent your brand, they represent your product better,’” he told me. Kiloh, who has a master’s degree in economics, actually thinks it’s more cost-effective to classify workers as employees than independent contractors, because they become more invested in doing a good job. Still, he says he’d prefer to be able to have mostly employees and a few independent contractors during busy periods.