A recent study found that more than a third of U.S. workers are now part of the gig economy, and many experts think that’s just the beginning. In fact, it’s predicted that by the year 2027, the majority of U.S. workers will leave behind their nine-to-five in exchange for freelance work—and for good reasons. Freelancing can provide workers with both job flexibility and competitive pay.
But one major drawback of these perks is that workers are often left without the benefits of workers’ compensation insurance if they’re injured on the job.
Gig workers contribute over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, so it’s crucial that these workers’ rights are protected—but how? To highlight this important issue, we decided to make it the focus of this year’s college essay contest.
After reviewing dozens of thoughtful responses on this topic, we ultimately had to select just 1 winner—Aubree Reese from Arizona State University (ASU). But we wanted to highlight some of our favorite responses from other students and share their perspectives on how to balance today’s gig economy with workers’ rights.
Below are some of their responses to the prompt:
Balancing the convenience of the gig economy with the rights of injured workers: What steps can be taken to ensure worker safety and workers’ compensation in this changing employment environment?
Aubree Reese from Arizona State University (scholarship winner):
“Charles Dickens’s 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities’ opening phrase, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ exposes a Victorian society that thrives from human despair. Though merely a tale, the depiction of the proliferation of our unjust gig economy is apt. During a time of political, social, and cultural unrest, the U.S. gig economy has provided millions of people the ability to work independently and is projected to increase in years to come. In the best of times, this ‘on your own,’ model ensures workers with flexibility as it allows them to create their own hours and supplement their income. In the worst of times, workers make ends meet by forgoing basic protections to sustain their livelihood. The question then becomes: what steps can be taken to ensure worker safety? The current proposal consists of three prongs: First, we must advocate for a worker classification model like California’s ‘ABC Test.’ Second, we must cast away the safe harbor provided to employers. Lastly, we must elect a new National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).”
“Our current methodology of employee classification relies on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 20-factor test and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) economic realities test. Both tests contain text open to ‘individual circumstances,’ and permit employers to classify workers on the grounds of a ‘reasonable basis.’ In other words, these methods lack not only rigidity in definition but are open to an employer’s discretion and interpretation. Unlike these tests, California’s ‘ABC test’ presumes employment. If the employer desires to reclassify their employee, they must provide proof by meeting all the ABC criteria pertaining to strict definitions of direction, control, and services. If companies fail to comply with these standards, they must be held accountable.”
Emma Rittenhouse from Ohio State University
“Most gig jobs do not provide health insurance and are done without a contract, which means that they can be let go for any reason. To protect workers, something that the companies that employ these workers can do is provide more incentives. For example, they can provide a minimum healthcare plan to the gig workers that will increase to a more comprehensive plan should they be brought on board full-time. Worker investment tends to be a huge issue for companies that employ gig workers due to them not feeling any strong reasons to be loyal to the company. Providing this plan would incentivize the workers to develop these strong ties and overall develop a motivated workforce, which leads to improved ties between workers and management.”
Caitlin Banks from University of Georgia School of Law
“‘Red lipstick looks sexy on you. You should wear it to work every day.’ Freshly seventeen, my friend was working over the summer before heading off to college. That was the last thing she had expected to hear from her manager that day, and we both knew what it was: sexual harassment. Human resources knew it too; yet when my friend came forward to file a complaint, she was let go. Why go through the trouble of an internal investigation when the employee would be leaving in a couple months anyways?”
“This is one of the implications that can result from living in a gig economy. Luka Bulian described gig work as ‘short-term’ or ‘work on demand’ in his 2021 article ‘The Gig Is Up: Who Does Gig Economy Actually Benefit’ that was published in Volume 19, Issue 1 of the Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems journal (107). The United States has a flourishing gig economy with 46% of independent workers relying on it for their primary income, and gig work is expected to continue growing as companies like Doordash increase in popularity (Bulian 108).”
“There is still hope to overcome these obstacles and allow everyone to enjoy the benefits of gig work, and it starts with legislation. I would argue for the implementation of new worker protection laws that extend to include gig workers. These laws should establish clear policies for if a gig worker is injured on the job, a minimum wage per hour of work, and a method to report mistreatment. This will ensure that workers also benefit from gig work while still being protected, and business will still benefit since the labor would continue to be cheaper than hiring another employee.”
Manuela Cuartas Gil from Western Governors University Tennessee
“Workers’ compensation is a long and complicated process to everyone and is often seen as more of a hassle than a benefit. I have heard on multiple occasions that injured employees will take personal sick leave or vacation days just to avoid the workers compensation process. While this may be good news for the employer, the employee really loses out on this benefit that is typically offered to them upon employment. I believe that companies should be required to provide a workers’ compensation representative that can walk employees through the process and help them to get the financial and time benefit that is offered to them.”
James Rekowski from University of Pittsburgh
“In recent history, the United States has continued to evolve into a country focused on large companies, wealthy individuals, and people doing whatever is necessary to become one of these wealthy individuals. With this, the rights of injured workers have become even more important to a proper labor industry. To ensure proper worker safety and workers’ compensation in this increasingly capitalistic mentality of ordinary citizens, workers require attention and respect from their supervisors, appropriate working conditions, and strong representation in court when the previous two are not provided.”
“When companies neglect to have attentive supervisors and proper working conditions, workers need to have the proper representation in the court of law to make sure their rights as well as the rights of other workers are protected. By having dedicated and enthusiastic attorneys, workers know that their hardships will be heard and respected. No matter how small or large the hardship may be for the individual, attorneys must be able to express the importance in court, allowing the individual to get the financial compensation that they deserve.”
Decarah Myers from University of Arizona
“A huge problem that we, humanity as a whole, get caught up on at times, is making decisions for individuals with our own morals and upbringings. Most of the time, it is from the goodness of our hearts and in good conscience, but immediately takes away the voice of the masses. A huge alteration that could be done in this everchanging employment environment could be simply allowing more space for sympathy and awareness to the voices of those that have been silenced in the past. This goes for many different categories of people, but specifically with injured workers. Giving them the chance to express how this injury has affected them in the work life and home life will be the starting tools to creating a healthier employee/company relationship. Quanitic, a business and technology school, gives excellent advice on how to improve ‘employee retention’ and the overall productivity of an establishment. ‘Having your HR department pay extra attention to employee relations goes a long way to improving employee retention and increased productivity (Quantici, 2021).’ Doing so could allow HR the opportunity to look closer at injured employees and understand their needs in such a hard time. In the long run, it will always be advantageous to have a salubrious connection between workers, their employers, and especially their management staff. This gives the company a better reputation which in turn makes more people want to seek out said company for employment.”
Rahma Dini from The Ohio State University
“To try and come to a resolution, companies should be held responsible to support the people working for them whether they consider them employees or contractors when an injury takes place that leads to them not being able to work like they used to before. Those individuals working 35-40 hours a week should automatically be considered employees and have employee benefits as that gig is essentially their full-time job. Some states have started to cover contractors with employee benefits but there are still millions of these people working out there with no coverage or safety net when life does not go their way. Through providing coverage for contractors these companies are more likely to accrue more people to want to work for them, furthering their businesses popularity and revenue, making it a win-win situation.”
Tucker Gillispie from University of Kentucky
“Job history is critical for employers to gauge whether or not you are someone who can do the job they require. The same logic should be applied to the companies on whether or not they serve the worker’s best interests. Therefore a company should find itself in a position where quality work only comes to them if they meet the standards necessary. Such as taking care of a worker who has been injured on the job. Treating the average worker like they are inhuman and do not deserve fundamental rights should not be accepted as a norm. Sadly the ability for people to restrict access to companies or avoid employment by them is often determined by their economic status. This leaves less fortunate people to suffer the effects of working with those immoral companies. As a community, we should help find ways for injured workers to seek justice for injuries. The legal system is an important step in this process and shows that we seek higher values than leaving people behind. Identifying those firms that work with the community and fight for the worker is an essential step that we can take to hold the employers accountable without damaging the systems we rely on.”
Natalie Anderson from Western Governor’s University
“I believe each state needs to view gig economy jobs as any other job, especially because this is the way our economy is moving towards. There may be some different clauses when applying for unemployment, disability and worker’s compensation benefits but nonetheless they still should be offered if they are employees that are only helping our economy and societies to function. These gig economy jobs are what the citizens are wanting to spend their money on so why not compensate the gig economy workers.”
“I do think to boost our economy each state needs to ensure worker safety and worker’s compensation benefits by thoroughly reviewing the current laws and benefits and adapt them in our changing employment environment. The laws and benefits need to be continually revised, added to and changed if necessary to fit our ever-changing economy so workers will want to continue to work in these gig economy jobs that the citizens are using more of as our economy evolves.”
Andreas Hardgrave from Grand Valley State University
“Safety and workers compensation is necessary for every environment and industry. However, the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ has brought about a different type of relationship between employees and employers which relies upon short-term contracts and free lance work. In weighing the rights of injured workers with the convenience and mass employment from services such as Uber and DoorDash, it would seem the next step to take is neither eliminating the industry, nor continuing to leave workers with full liability of their safety. Instead, finding a compromise with workers continuing to hold their own liability with reimbursements or subsidies from the employer, and the creation of industry-standards for training, safety, and equipment maintenance, as applicable to the service, is the best possible course of action.”
“Time has shown that with the creation of new technologies and ways of business, new regulating laws are commonly needed to ensure fair practices. When it comes to the safety of workers, the creation of precedents in law in the new gig economy is all the more urgent.”
Bryan Chai from California State University, East Bay
“In recent years, millions of American workers have joined the gig economy, making up a third of the workforce. They range from independent contractors, to temps who only work a few hours a week. The conveniences of the gig economy include flexible work schedules, alternative work locations, and unique payment structures. Because the gig economy is an unconventional employment structure, it lacks traditional workplace training and supervision.”
“The increase in gig workers led to a rise in previously unusual hazards. Many companies operating in the gig economy operate in higher risk industries. For example, Uber, Lyft, and Instacart are rideshare and delivery companies that utilize public roads. Transportation incidents account for roughly half of all workplace fatalities. To remedy this, gig companies should require all workers to undergo standardized training to prevent these accidents.”
“Overall, gig companies should improve their communication towards workers. Proper training and supervision should be provided to workers so they know how to properly perform their role. A contact should be established where workers can report hazards or voice their concerns to the company. Worker feedback is crucial to a company’s success because it shows what internal parts of the company can be improved.”
Do you think you could write a winning essay? Apply for our next scholarship contest!
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Thanks to all the students who participated in this contest, and best of luck in your studies!