Weaponized Empathy

This is the second of a two part blog post about fallacious political arguments that contribute to, and are impacted by, widespread precarity in the U.S. by William Wright, an engineer, artist, political activist and previous gig worker on Taskrabbit. See also his earlier post, Minimum Rage.

I call bullshit on the side-gig selling proselytizers of prosperity. I worked a side-gig as a main-gig for about 5 years. I started working for Taskrabbit just a month after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in late 2014. If you lived or worked in the East Bay during that time, you could hire me to assemble furniture, mount a TV, hang pictures or curtains, or pretty much anything just under what you might (should) hire a licensed electrician, plumber, or carpenter to do. Billing 40 hours in one week was tough to pull off without burn out or injury, because 40 hours billed was 60 hours of work when you account for travel time between clients, communication with clients and purchasing supplies like spackle and mounting hardware. 20-30 billable hours per week was still a lot of physical and administrative work, but was the pace of work I tried to keep over a 6 day work week, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

There was a lot about my TaskRabbit experience that I am grateful for. I appreciated the flexibility. (You’ll hear that a lot from gig-workers.) But how flexible is your job really if you don’t have paid vacations, can’t take a paid sick day, and your work schedule mostly conforms to the free time of other people? Some gig-workers appreciate the ability to squeeze in more work on the side, between classes, or other jobs, or while the kids are at school. But, is devoting precious free time to more work really flexibility?

During my time at Taskrabbit, I felt like I was always working. This included paying attention to every notification on my phone. Keeping steady work required constant availability and responsiveness to client communications (I was typically messaging with 20-40 clients per week). Constant vigilance was also necessary to avoid being down-rated in client search results for not meeting Taskrabbit’s response metrics standards.

You won’t get rich working in the gig-economy. You might (might) be able to just get by; but it’s unlikely that you’ll come up from “working, working, working” a 5-to-9 gig (despite the unfortunate romanticization by national treasure, Dolly Parton). Just getting by only works for as long as you’re able to just get by. A little misstep, or random bout of bad luck, and a small problem turns into a crisis. I was just getting by, with a barely sustainable balance of trying not to overwork myself too much, but working enough to cover my monthly expenses (when I could). I often felt like a coin, precariously perched on a slope. I would gain momentum, rolling up towards what looked to be a more stable surface; then I would roll the other way, picking up unstable speed towards uncertain peril.

A gold coin balances on a sharp, pink ledge with red sides and surreal geometry, high up above the clouds.
On Edge, by William Wright, acrylic on canvas, 2019

The plight of the gig-worker has been a topic of great debate here in California, where many app-based companies are headquartered. At the center of legal and legislative developments, including a state ballot measure, is this question:

Are gig-workers employees of their respective platforms, or are they independent contractors?

This question was sent down to California voters in 2020, as Proposition 22. The story of Prop 22 begins back in 2018, with what is known locally as the “Dynamex Decision”, in which the California State Supreme Court decided that a person was an independent contractor only if they met the following criteria :

  1. The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact.

  2. The person’s work is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.

  3. The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

If a worker’s situation failed to meet even one of these 3 criteria, the state considered them an employee rather than an independent contractor. Uber, Taskrabbit, Instacart, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub, Caviar, Postmates - all of the gig worker platforms that I am familiar with - control and direct their “contractors” on the performance of their work; all advertise the services that their “contractors” are providing as services that the app-based company is offering; and few gig-workers perform their services independent of an app-based platform. So, according to the California State Supreme Court, there are 3 clear reasons why gig-workers in California are employees and not independent contractors.

In 2019, the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), a law based on the Dynamex Decision. App-based companies, facing legal pressure to make changes to their business model, quickly went to work investing millions into a political campaign to override AB 5 by passing a ballot measure allowing them to continue misclassifying their employees as contractors. In early 2020, the gig-masters succeeded in getting Prop 22 added to the General Election ballot. It’s passage later that year was the culmination of a $207 million combined effort by Doordash, Uber, Lyft, Caviar, Postmates and Instacart.

For months leading up to the election, images of happy gig-workers were used to warp public understanding towards accepting presumptions convenient to the gig-masters. The ads weaponized empathy, using misleading testimonies to breed customer fear that their beloved Instacart shopper or their app-ordered factotum would be out of work unless Prop 22 passed. It was a soft ransom threat - “let us do what we want, or they're gonna suffer and you’re going to be inconvenienced.”

$207 million of misleading advertising and lobbying were clearly effective. I even saw this argument take hold in the progressive group I was organizing with at the time. In a meeting a few weeks before the 2020 General Election, we held a (COVID-cautious) virtual discussion on ballot measures. One member gave a short speech advocating for the passage of Prop 22. They argued that if it didn’t pass, gig-workers would suffer because the tech companies employing them wouldn’t be able to afford to continue to employ them. They further argued, pushing back against disagreement from another member, that forcing these tech companies to treat their “contractors” as employees would hurt the gig-workers more than the status quo. 59% of the 2020 electorate seemed to be convinced as well. Prop 22 passed and the status quo continues.