Miami Herald: Gig workers faced an economic crisis long before the coronavirus arrived

The spread of COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus, has made one thing devastatingly clear: Gig workers in Miami and across the country have long been living in a state of emergency. Often associated with apps like Uber and Handy, a gig worker is anyone who performs work on a temporary or on-demand basis, including day laborers, domestic workers and platform economy workers. A recent report, “The Gig Economy and Florida’s Workforce System,” notes the challenges that gig workers face in Florida: income insecurity, a lack of labor protections and a lack of access to benefits and insurance programs.

Nationwide, an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of workers participate in the gig economy. Across industries, gig work is rapidly becoming the norm, threatening to reshape the future of work toward more precariousness and exploitation. Few local and state governments have tried to rein in this labor reorganization. Miami-Dade County has opened the door to anti-worker corporations like Uber, which are piloting platforms like UberWorks to make dangerous expansions into our local labor market.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to the threats posed by the “gig-ification” of work. While a public health crisis affects us all, gig workers face a compounded financial crisis. As low-wage workers living paycheck to paycheck, many gig workers must work to survive. As the economy slows down and residents retreat into their homes, gig workers, including day laborers, may soon be out of work and out of sight. Our laws will leave them without access to a basic safety net such as unemployment assistance.

Excluded from paid sick leave and proposals to temporarily expand it, gig workers who do find work face a dilemma: Lose wages or risk exposure. Despite calls to stay home to help “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, many gig workers cannot afford to lose life-sustaining wages. The lack of protections for gig workers impacts everyone. Vulnerable populations, like the elderly, must decide between risking exposure or going without services they need, like domestic work and on-demand delivery.

It only gets worse. Gig workers in Florida are often uninsured or underinsured in our dysfunctional healthcare system. Classified (or misclassified) as independent contractors, many are not provided health insurance through an employer. Without guaranteed healthcare from their government, they cannot afford testing or treatment without incurring out-of-pocket expenses or medical debt.

The good news: COVID-19 is sparking local action to protect workers. Athletes from the Miami Heat, Florida Panthers and Miami Marlins have pledged financial support for arena workers. Team owners should follow their lead. UNITE HERE Local 355 is mobilizing an Education and Support Fund for hospitality workers facing reduced hours and layoffs. Mutual-aid initiatives are being coordinated by the Community Emergency Operations Center. Responsible employers of domestic workers are heeding the call of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and adopting fair-care standards, including safety equipment, flexible scheduling, paid sick leave and portable benefits.

Miami-Dade County has also stepped up by suspending eviction activities and utility shut-offs and guaranteeing school meals during school closures. This is a good start, but we must do more. Our government, business and philanthropic institutions should follow the lead of cities such as Seattle and Charlottesville and create COVID-19 response funds, including emergency grants and interest-free loans to help support and stabilize gig workers. Government officials should adopt policies from the Emerging Community Priorities from Florida Grassroots Organizations and expand coverage and protections for undocumented and other excluded workers.

We must also plan beyond this pandemic and create permanent protections for gig and other low-wage workers, including expanded labor rights and benefits, universal basic income and government-guaranteed healthcare. COVID-19 has revealed the cracks in an economy and government that leave millions of people behind. Even before COVID-19, gig workers already were facing a public-health crisis caused by poverty wages, soaring rents,and a lack of healthcare.

It’s time we address that crisis, too.

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