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Monday, April 11, 2016


Working without a net

by Tom Sullivan

Walking That Tightrope- Demian Bell

David Dayen shares scenes from his life in the "gig" economy, or what he calls "the 1099 Economy." They are tales a lot of freelance writers can relate to, I imagine, as well as anyone working for themselves and receiving no benefits. Perhaps the most startling bit of data from research by Princeton’s Alan Krueger and Harvard’s Lawrence Katz is that the growth in those sorts of jobs accounts for pretty much the entire growth in the job market over the last decade. It is one key reason, Dayen argues, why voters are angry:

The way the 1099 economy is sold, with airy platitudes about freedom and being your own boss, doesn’t correspond to the very real anxiety of this type of arrangement. You’re cut off from any safety net that relies on employers. You have an unpaid, part-time job consisting of getting your next job and making sure you get paid for your last job. Your taxes are a nightmare to unravel. You have no advocates for you in the workplace, and little bargaining power to improve your lot.

The fact that this shift toward the 1099 economy occurred mostly during a terrible labor market suggests it was never a matter of worker choice, but an exercise of employer power. And it’s become a frustration for millions, a confirmation of the rigged economy that places more of a burden on ordinary people. It certainly informs this anti-establishment, anti-business-as-usual political moment.
I've spent enough time working in cubicles to know some of those airy platitudes. When you start hearing phrases like "enhancing shareholder value," update your resume and start filling boxes. Reduction in force, right-sizing, etc. They're all candy coating on the coming pink slip. The message is always the same: employees are human "resources" to be consumed, used up and disposed of. Just another way for the Midas Cult to turn humans into gold.

Dayen credits Steven Hill (Raw Deal) for advocating one possible solution: making workplace benefits universal and portable:
These operate like insurance plans: Workers pay in a small amount in every week and get health and pension benefits, disability or unemployment insurance, even sick and vacation days. But to make them work, it’s essential that employers also have to contribute a matching portion of a worker’s salary into the plans, regardless of whether the employee is on staff or a contract worker. This way, independent contractors receive the same protections and benefits for doing mostly the same work as everybody else.

This would take the safety net for individuals out of the discretion of the employer, and end the discrimination against the 1099 worker. It could also lead to federalizing the safety net in ways that would widen the pool of workers covered, and lead to greater efficiencies. You could imagine multi-employer plans competing with one another to attract workers, offering extra perks like job training and apprenticeships, childcare, or other worker-linked benefits.
The problem is, Dayen writes, these matters are not getting the attention they deserve in the presidential debates. Nor are they getting it further down the ticket from where I sit. Economic uncertainty is indeed behind a lot of the anger in the electorate. It gnaws at people. You've heard about its consequences:
Suicide, once thought to be associated with troubled teens and the elderly, is quickly becoming an age-blind statistic. Middle aged Americans are turning to suicide in alarming numbers. The reasons include easily accessible prescription painkillers, the mortgage crisis and most importantly the challenge of a troubled economy. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims suicide rates now top the number of deaths due to automobile accidents.
I get the burden that student debt places on younger voters, and that's seeing some TV time during Democratic debates. But the frayed safety net (or no safety net) middle aged workers face across America and the job insecurity behind death statistics we don't like to talk about are personal issues that impact people's lives every day. Democrats ought to talk more about those and less about abstractions like "the economy" and "trade." Donald Trump's response is to give jittery workers someone to blame, and vague promises of "winning" again. Democrats who want to see themselves winning again in Congress need to speak more directly to what's eating at American families and propose reinforcements like Hill's to workers stressed out trying to climb the ladder without the security of a net.

At a local fundraiser over the weekend, I caught a stump speech from a major candidate. It was a good speech, confidently delivered. But it had all the boilerplate elements you've heard a million times, stuff friendly audiences nod at but don't feel in their guts. Public education, small businesses, good jobs. "We're open for business," blah, blah, blah. All the emotional content of a toothpaste ad. What voters need to hear from their leaders instead is that they understand why neighbors are taking their lives, that they know their anxieties and struggles to stay in their homes, and why family members have turned to prescription drugs to dull the pain. Democrats need to make an emotional connection with American workers, not an intellectual or economic one. But most of all, voters need to feel candidates plan to do more than give them someone to blame. That they will help people secure their homes, their families, and their futures again.