Our guest author today is Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School. This post, originally published at OnLabor, is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.
During the last few years of the Obama Presidency, we saw a productive debate over the question of whether changes in the organization of work called for a new legal categorization of workers. In particular, the question was whether we need a third category, intermediate between “employee” and “independent contractor,” to capture the kinds of work arrangements typified by gig economy firms like Uber. Seth Harris and Alan Krueger, in a leading example, called for the creation of a legal category they named “independent worker,” which would grant some – but not all – protections of employment law to workers engaged in these types of work relationships.
There were several primary points of contention in the debate. One was whether such a third category actually was necessary, or whether the existing categories of employee and independent contractor were flexible and capacious enough to capture the new work relationships. Harris and Krueger took one position on this question, I took another.
A second question was whether a third category would result in ‘leveling up’ or ‘leveling down.’ One hypothesis was that if we created a new category – independent worker or something similar – workers previously classified as independent contractors would be shifted up (as it were) into the new category and thus granted expanded protections relative to what they enjoyed as contractors. The other hypothesis, the more pessimistic one, was that workers previously classified as employees would be shifted down into the new category and thus offered fewer protections relative to what they enjoyed as employees.