Bike messenger Pablo Avendano was delivering food Saturday night in Philadelphia at 10th and Spring Garden Streets when he was hit by a car and killed.
If Avendano, 34, had been working for a company that classified him as an employee, his family would be eligible for workers’ compensation, and they’d be paid a portion of his wages. But he was working for Caviar, a San Francisco-based on-demand delivery service, the kind that has proliferated in the last decade and has built its business model around a workforce of independent contractors.
Avendano was one of those contractors, working in what’s known as the gig economy. That means he didn’t get benefits that most employees do, such things as health insurance, paid time off, or workers’ compensation.
His death raises questions about gig workers’ rights, or rather, the lack thereof. It’s an issue that advocates have been grappling with as more workers enter into nontraditional work arrangements.
“The gig economy was created under the guise of giving workers more flexibility, but it was really created to lower labor costs and to find a way to get things done cheaper, and it’s workers that are bearing that burden,” said Debbie Berkowitz, Worker Health and Safety Program Director at the National Employment Law Project.
The National Employment Law Project published a paper in 2016 advocating for gig workers to be covered by workers’ compensation, pointing out that such jobs as taxi drivers and bike messengers are among the most dangerous.
Some workers have effected policy change. In New York, there’s a state-mandated “Black Car Fund” subsidized by a surcharge on fares, that provides benefits to all for-hire transportation workers, whether or not they are employees. And, in 2016, London gig workers for delivery services Deliveroo and Uber Eats organized protests and strikes for higher wages.
The gig economy is not a new phenomenon, says Stanford economics professor Paul Oyer, however it’s become more prevalent now that technology has made it easier to connect workers with jobs.
In our current labor market, Oyer says, anyone who wants a full-time job can get one, so if someone is working for Uber or Caviar, that’s because that person wants to, whether it’s for flexibility or because it’s better than, say, working at McDonald’s.
That makes it harder for gig employers to staff their enterprises right now, but ultimately, he says the gig economy is here to stay. That’s because it provides value to workers and to companies.
Employers say it’s a matter of freedom and flexibility for workers.
Jianming Zhou, cofounder of SherpaShare, a service that helps Uber and Lyft drivers track hours and pay, has said that gig workers don’t want to be classified as employees, as it would allow employers to have more control over them, and it’s precisely that freedom they’re signing up for when they take a contract job.
A contingent workforce also allows start-ups to grow faster: It lets companies easily enter and exit a market, as well as test new services, such as Amazon’s launch of its new two-hour Amazon Prime Now delivery service and Uber testing out different products such as UberEATS and UberFlash.
Still, the distinction between employee and independent contractor is an issue that’s being argued in courts across the country, with renewed interest because of the increase in the number of companies that employ contractors. Caviar was among the online food delivery services that were being challenged in court or through arbitration in San Francisco in 2015 for classifying its workers as independent contractors. Most recently, the Supreme Court of California issued a decision that will make it harder for companies to treat their employees as contractors.
As for whether Avendano’s family is eligible for any benefits, Caviar spokeswoman Katie Dally said, “We’re working to get in touch with Pablo’s family and seeing what we can do to help.”