Last week, the Biden administration made another effort to drag the U.S. labor market back into the past. The Department of Labor withdrew the independent-contractor rule, a Trump-era regulation that made it easier for firms to classify workers as contractors instead of employees. It’s not yet clear what will replace it, though President Biden says he supports the ABC test that California tried to implement, which would classify most contractors as employees—including not just drivers for Uber and Lyft but even freelance writers.
The Labor Department and the media are framing the administration’s move as a way to ensure that workers in the gig economy are protected and paid overtime and minimum wage. Yet many workers prefer the flexibility of contract work, which lets them set their own hours and work for other companies. According to a Fed survey, most gig workers report high levels of satisfaction with the arrangement. When California tried to classify gig workers as employees, the state faced pushback not just from companies but from gig workers themselves.
They have good reasons to prefer it. The nature of work is changing, as it has throughout history. It once was considered dehumanizing that most workers should be beholden to a single employer. Today, we’re forcing this arrangement on people who don’t want it.
The rollback of the Trump rule joins a list of policies—efforts to increase unionization, low-skill manufacturing, and “shovel-ready” infrastructure jobs—by which the Biden administration is attempting to shoehorn the modern labor market into a 1950s mold. The problem with these policies is that the labor market has changed. When work was more uniform, workers were easier to replace, so forming strong ties to one’s employer made sense for job security. Unionization also made sense because it allowed the large numbers of lower-skilled workers to pool together for similar pay and benefits.
Over time, however, manufacturing, construction, and most other jobs have become more technical, requiring skilled workforces. The more skilled the workers, the less incentive they have to attach themselves to individual jobs or to pool risk with fellow workers. The more skills you have, the less unionization makes sense because you’re effectively subsidizing lower-skilled workers. And workers today also place a higher premium on flexibility. This may explain why the unionization drive at Amazon has not succeeded.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we should expect the value placed on flexibility in work arrangements to increase. The expanded availability of remote work, combined with the continuing unpredictability of school re-openings and child-care arrangements, make benefits like the ability to set your own hours and the freedom to work for multiple employers more important than ever.
Some Biden policies, like making it easier to buy health insurance without an employer, move in the right direction. The administration would do well to pursue more measures like these that embrace the new economy, rather than trying to force workers into structures better suited for the economy of more than a half-century ago.
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