Last year, as Airbnb’s $25.5 billion valuation surpassed Hilton Hotels’ and Uber became the world’s most valuable privately owned company, it became clear the on-demand economy is no passing fad but is, in fact, a force to be reckoned with.
The on-demand marketplace is growing at a dizzying pace as new companies emerge daily, helping connect a diverse workforce of tradespeople, licensed professionals and unskilled laborers to a market of willing buyers through the company’s platforms. Intuit projects the population of U.S. on-demand workers will more than double by 2020, which means that, if you can’t already summon a doctor, lawyer, babysitter or dog walker right now via an on-demand app, then sit tight—they’re coming soon to a smartphone near you.
But the scale and speed of the on-demand economy’s growth also means policymakers, regulators, insurers and on-demand companies will have to huddle quickly to resolve the issues that arise with this expanding marketplace and its workforce. Here are the three key questions we need to address immediately:
1. When the safeguards of the traditional corporation no longer exist, how do we protect the on-demand workforce?
Uber is currently appealing a case it lost against the California Labor Commissioner last summer regarding whether a driver is an independent contractor or an employee. While establishing this distinction is a critical issue, we still need to address some big questions about the vast self-employed workforce in the on-demand economy.
A good primer question: How do we get the information we need to make informed policy decisions? Independent contractors in the on-demand economy are classified as part of a larger pool of temporary, seasonal, part-time and freelance workforce called “contingent” workers. A 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report cites this workforce as somewhere between less than 5% and more than one-third of the country’s overall labor pool. The big gap in this measurement is because it depends on how jobs are defined and on the data source; the broad definitions and lack of clear data on this workforce makes on-demand independent contractors and their needs tough to track and evaluate. How much of this workforce depends on this income for supplementary purposes as opposed to relying on this income as a full-time living?
According to Intuit’s study, contingent workers will make up 40% of the U.S. workforce by 2020. That’s a lot of people working without the safeguards provided by the traditional corporation—guaranteed minimum wage, steady income, unemployment insurance, healthcare, workers’ compensation and disability insurance. What kind of safety nets do we need to put in place to protect this workforce? And what does this growing workforce mean in terms of policy development? How does the social contract change?
2. How should we regulate hybrid commercial/consumer activities?
A sticky issue surrounding the on-demand economy is how to regulate commercial activities that are conducted by individuals rather than by traditional businesses.
While some argue that an Airbnb property should be as heavily regulated as a hotel if a host is accepting payment for lodgings, drawing an apples-to-apples comparison between the two is a challenge. For example, treehouses, yurts, igloos and lighthouses were among the top-10 most desirable vacation destinations on Airbnb shopper’s wish lists last year, some fetching upward of $350 a night. Who exactly should you call about making sure the igloo is up to code before guests arrive?
Some of the services and products offered by the individual through on-demand platforms have never been available through traditional enterprises; they’re unique, intimate experiences and, before on-demand platforms made them accessible, were difficult to find. We’re entering a new frontier where many tourists covet a culinary experience they can book at a local’s house via apps such as Feastly or Kitchensurfing rather than a fine dining restaurant, or they prefer offbeat accommodations booked through Airbnb to a 5-star hotel. We can’t assess how to best regulate these individual commercial activities until we have more data and understand the risks. How do we collect that data? How do we ensure the safety and protection of the individuals operating and participating in these activities until we have the information necessary to adequately regulate them?
3. How can a square peg workforce function in a round hole system?
Mortgages, loans, credit cards, leases… these are just a few of life’s niceties (or necessities) that are challenging for an on-demand independent contractor to secure. Our current financial services, systems and policies were built to work for employees who collect a regular paycheck as well as freelancers who have reliable cash flow through long-term contracts and monthly retainers. Independent contractors working through on-demand platforms tend to rely on short-term gigs often generated through multiple sources, and they have difficulty predicting their day-to-day income, never mind their annual net or gross.
This isn’t a niche workforce. If independent contractors represent 40% of the U.S. working population in 2020, they’re significant drivers of the economy. They generate income and pay taxes; they need homes, cars, work equipment and all the other stuff that keeps their businesses running and makes their lives worth living. We can’t dismiss their needs, because we are measuring their 21st century income with a 20th century yardstick. How do we retrofit our round-hole systems to include this square peg workforce?
If we want a thriving economy in which people enjoy the benefits of the on-demand economy, and doctors, lawyers, drivers, plumbers and everyone else serving the on-demand marketplace have equal opportunity to succeed, then the time to talk about these questions and issues is now.