Thursday, August 13, 2015
The employment status of workers for “sharing economy” firms such as Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and Handy is becoming a major legal and political issue. This essay takes up that question, building on the ongoing cases against Uber and Lyft. Against most commentators, it first argues that the ambiguous legal status of Uber and Lyft drivers is not a symptom of outdated legal tests. Rather, that ambiguity reflects a deeper conceptual problem: that our laws lack a satisfactory definition of employment in the first place. The solution to that problem, the essay argues, lies in recognizing employment as a legal concept through and through, and thus recognizing that questions of employment status inevitably involve contestable value judgments. The Uber and Lyft cases, for example, present a conflict between two important sets of social goods: on the one hand, distributive justice and a more egalitarian political economy; on the other hand, the substantial welfare benefits promised by the companies’ innovations. While reasonable people will disagree, the essay argues that imposing employment duties would strike an appropriate balance between these goals — ensuring that the benefits of disruptive technologies are fairly shared with those whose labor makes those technologies profitable.