Labor protections are meant to address certain situations where there is an imbalance in control between the employer and employee. But when the workers themselves control their working conditions, are these labor protections still necessary? 

The heart of the debate over independent contracting in the gig economy is how can we improve protections for gig workers, without losing the control and flexibility they value.

Today, you can’t have it both ways. Having job security means the employer will schedule your hours. Without that control, you couldn’t get coffee in the morning if one day all the baristas choose to sleep in.S

On the other hand, embracing the freedom to control your own schedule releases an employer from paying overtime or scheduling mandatory breaks, since you control when, where and how long you want to work. 

But times are changing and so is technology, and arrangements for gig workers don’t need to be an either/or proposition. The best approach is to explore new models that uplift work and extend labor protections where there are the most obvious needs.

The wrong approach is to shoehorn all freelance workers into an industrial model built for a different age and outdated technologies.

Technology hasn’t just created more choices for consumers. It has provided a flexible way for workers to earn money and supplement income in California and around the world according to their own lifestyles and preferences.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in California are voting with their pocketbooks to forego or supplement traditional work arrangements with work in the gig economy to accommodate school, kin care, or avocations, or to bring in more income on the side.

But making way for change isn’t easy, particularly when traditional work arrangements are defended by special interests that can exist only within those old models. While progressive in other realms, the California Legislature has never grappled with how freelance workers and independent contractors fit into our dynamic economy, especially the gig economy. 

By default, workers have been governed by laws uninformed by the advances of mobile phones, information networks, or the innovation revolution of the past decade.

But don’t take my word for it. 

In a 2015 opinion on drivers in the gig economy, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco stated, “The test the California courts have developed over the 20th Century for classifying workers isn’t very helpful in addressing this 21st Century problem. Some factors point in one direction, some point in the other, and some are ambiguous … perhaps drivers should be considered a new category of worker altogether …”

The Legislature must get off the sidelines and set the ground rules for the networked, innovative, on-demand economy, not by rolling back the clock as if the gig economy doesn’t exist, but by recognizing and supporting nontraditional workers.

Freelance workers are overwhelmingly satisfied with their arrangements. According to a survey by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, independent contractors overwhelmingly prefer their work arrangement (79%) to traditional jobs. Fewer than one in 10 independent contractors would prefer a traditional work arrangement, according to the bureau.

What drives these attitudes?

California’s diverse and energetic workforce is the beating heart of our dynamic economy. The Legislature can further boost worker satisfaction, economic growth by updating work arrangements that suit 21st century lifestyles instead of leaving judges and juries to, as Judge Chhabria indicated, force a “square peg” into “two round holes.”