This op-ed originally appeared in LoHud.
The gig economy has been part and parcel to the livelihoods of Black Americans for generations. Some think the term “gig” is a pejorative, but for Black and Brown people in this country, it’s meant the extra cash we’ve made helping a neighbor move, fixing some one’s car, babysitting, repairing a computer and countless other flexible jobs. And for some it has been a primary source of income; think: domestic workers like nannies and other childcare providers, housekeepers and handypeople. These kinds of independent opportunities have been essential to our financial lives in no small part because the traditional corporate economy has never worked for us. In many ways, it was set up to deliberately shut us out.
So, it should be no surprise that Black and Brown people have found opportunity in the app-based platforms like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates. Most come to these jobs to supplement their incomes. Others are looking to save up to start a small business or pay for education or job training. Some may have been laid off and need a job to serve as a bridge until they find their next opportunity. Or maybe they are a parent who needs to set their own hours to take care of their kids during the day. Whatever the reason, these platforms have helped millions of people of color take ownership of their work and their lives. They can make extra when they need it and take time off without asking anyone’s permission.
Since the COVID economy has hit people of color harder than anyone else, flexible work opportunities have been a lifeline — providing income to pay rent, put food on the table or pay for medical care. I’d go so far as to say these jobs are essential. They help people avoid crowds at the grocery store and have kept small businesses running.
So, when I hear talk about eliminating the flexible work model and forcing these workers into the old-fashioned employer/employee system, all I hear is an attempt to force Black and Brown workers into a structure that doesn’t work for them and never has. Yes, independent app-based workers deserve benefits, and of course they should have protections. But taking away their abilities to choose their own schedules and be their own bosses adds no value to their lives or livelihoods. It goes against the very reasons they take on these lines of work in the first place and it removes a sense of dignity that the traditional economy has never adequately afforded Black and Brown workers to begin with. Surveys show workers themselves don’t even want to be employees. So why are so many others trying to force this on them?
In California, the legislature passed a law in 2019 that would have prohibited the independent work model for app-based platforms. But in a referendum last November, voters roundly rejected that law in support of the workers. The takeaway is that voters and workers are aligned on maintaining the flexibility and independence of these jobs. Those calling on New York to follow California’s lead should learn from this experience.
To force an employment model upon us that has failed our communities in the past and then tell us it’s for our protection is ridiculous. People of color gravitate to flexible app-based work because it is a natural outgrowth of an economic model that’s supported our families and communities for generations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these jobs have been the only financial backstop for tens of thousands of people in our communities who were out of work or needed extra cash for themselves or their families. Taking away their freedom to make decisions for themselves and be their own bosses helps no one. These workers deserve benefits and protections like everyone else. Let’s make that happen by letting them fit work around their lives, not forcing them to fit their lives around work. In times of great peril and pernicious circumstance we are charged by history and posterity to deconstruct unjust systems to subvert faltering and flailing ways and means — not to beautify them. We must labor to reimagine possibilities — not reshuffle the stacked deck.
The Rev. Kirsten John Foy lives in Brooklyn and is a longtime social justice advocate and founder of ARC of Justice.