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What Clinton and Trump Would Do for Gig Economy Workers

An under-the-radar jobs issue: 'contractors' lacking employee benefits

Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

As we enter the final stretch of the presidential election season (Hallelujah!), the rhetoric around jobs — how to create good paying ones, minimize income inequality and bring opportunities back home — is sure to heat up.

But what about the challenges facing the growing number of Americans who don’t work in traditional jobs, but are instead gig economy workers — like freelancers, consultants, and contractors — who lack the benefits and legal protections typically provided by employers? Where do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand on them?

It matters because millions of Americans — the U.S. Government Accountability Office says perhaps as many as 30 percent of workers —have contingent jobs. Some willingly choose this, to have a more flexible lifestyle. But many others would prefer full-time employment.

The 1099 Workers

Even if you’re presently employed in a full-time job, at some point, you, too, could wind up joining the gig economy as an independent contractor (these workers are sometimes referred to as 1099s, for the tax form they use instead of an employee’s W-2). A recent Deloitte survey found that 42 percent of U.S. executives expect to use more contingent workers in the next three to five years.

The candidates seem stuck on discussing traditional 9-to-5 jobs, while ignoring the financial challenges of independent workers.

As a result of globalization, technology and the emergence of new business models (like those of Airbnb and Uber), 9-to-5 jobs are on the decline and the contingent workforce is here to stay. Yet the presidential candidates seem stuck on generally discussing jobs in the context of the traditional 9-to-5 model, while largely ignoring the financial challenges of independent workers who rely on a patchwork of income streams to make a living.

5 Downsides to Being an Independent Contractor

Although the freelance economy frequently affords workers flexibility on where and when they work, there are five serious downsides:

1. Independent workers must purchase benefits on their own. This includes unsubsidized health care, life insurance and disability coverage and retirement plans with no employer match.

2. Freelancers miss out on employer-sponsored perks such as training, elder care benefits, wellness programs and trips to educational conferences. They’re also excluded from holiday and sick pay and are responsible to pay for their on-the-job expenses. For example, Uber drivers — who the company views as independent contractors, though that opinion is now a legal tussle — must pay for their own vehicle maintenance and gas.

3. Payroll taxes are higher. Independent workers must pay the full 15 percent rate for FICA (Social Security) taxes, as opposed to employees who split the burden 50-50 with their employers. The independent contractors can deduct half of these taxes, though.

4. Independent workers often earn significantly less than similar workers who are paid as employees. According to a National Employment Law Project report, one government expert calculated that a construction worker earning $31,200 a year before taxes would be left with an annual net compensation of $10,660.80 if paid as an independent contractor, compared to $21,885.20 if paid properly as an employee.

5. Independent workers are denied a broad range of legal protections. Unlike employees, they aren’t covered by minimum wage regulations, unemployment insurance and overtime pay rules. They also lack the collective bargaining rights and civil rights protections of their W-2 brethren.

The fact is, many gig economy workers live with constant financial insecurity and uncertainty. It’s hard to qualify for a mortgage or a car loan if you don’t have a history of steady income or future prospects for it.

Misclassified as Contractors

While, some independent workers happily accept the limitations in exchange for gig economy flexibility, many are forced into contingent worker arrangements, sometimes wrongly. According to the National Employment Law Project, employers in an increasing number of industries are misclassifying workers as independent contractors, saving the firms as much as 30 percent of taxes otherwise paid for “employees,” plus the costs of unemployment insurance, overtime and even the minimum wage.

Some legal and state government challenges to misclassification have come to the aid of contingent workers. Uber and Lyft have been sued by workers who say they should be treated as employees. A Fortune magazine story on Clinton and the gig economy noted that California’s labor commission, in a non-binding ruling, found that a former Uber driver was not an independent contractor, but an employee.  Last year, as the result of legal action, the grocery delivery startup Instacart agreed to reclassify its 1099 workers as traditional W-2 employees, so those Instacarters are now entitled to all the benefits and protections of other employees there.

What Clinton and Trump Have Said

Hillary Clinton has forcefully spoken out against employers who misclassify employees as independent contractors. Last July, she said: “I will crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors or even stealing their wages.” And, she said, “this on demand or so-called gig economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation, but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protection and what a good job will look like in the future.”

While not mentioning freelancers specifically, Clinton has other initiatives on her website that could prove beneficial to them, such as guaranteed paid family and medical leave benefits that would be funded by taxes, instead of by employers.

Donald Trump hasn’t offered any pronouncements on gig economy workers or protections for them specifically, though in a video on his website, he declares, “I will be the greatest jobs producing president that God ever created!”

He has, however, proposed lowering the corporate tax rate to 15 percent for all businesses, which would in most cases, apply to — and benefit — independent contractors.

Under the Trump tax plan, while a worker earning more than $50,000 as an employee would be taxed at either 20 or 25 percent, that same person would owe a 15 percent tax rate as an independent contractor.

The Politician Who Is Speaking Out

One politician who is championing gig-economy policies is Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.). Last June, he was the first lawmaker to propose a slate of recommendations addressing issues created by the rise of the in-demand economy. “Policymakers need to discuss whether government and industry’s 20th Century definitions still work for a 21st Century economy,” he said. “The decision about whether on-demand workers are independent contractors or employees is too important to leave to the courts on a case-by-case, state-by-state basis.”

Warner also called for exploring public-private options for “providing safety net benefits for workers who are not connected to a traditional, full-time employer,” perhaps borrowing the idea of the Hour Bank (used by the building trades for 60 years), which administers benefits for members who work for a series of contractors.

The Brookings Institution think tank has also developed a proposal, (cleverly named The Hamilton Project in a hat-tip to our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury), with several compelling recommendations.

Clearly, creating the right mix of solutions is no easy task, especially in this contentious political environment. But it’s high time our presidential candidates start asking the tough questions and weigh in with future-focused solutions that will help move all our workers forward — not just those working 9-to-5 (what a way to make a living).

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