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Not All Gig Workers Want New York’s Proposed Protections

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a commission to look at improving conditions for workers in the so-called gig economy, where people work job to job with few employment rights. But some workers say they are worried that the changes could actually harm their ability to earn money. 

Joshua McFee is a professional wrestler. His ambition is to make it big.

He’s hoping he will be signed with a major television company.

“And then that’s your living,” McFee said.

In the meantime he earns money by driving for ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft, when he is not competing in matches around the country.   

“I like driving,” he said. “So it just works for me.”

He says his hours are flexible, he can start at 5 in the morning if he wants to, and since he’s not on anyone else’s clock, he can quickly arrange travel to wrestling events.

“I’ll be booked Friday, Saturday, Sunday, but it’s up in Michigan, like Detroit,” he said. “And I’ve got to leave on a Thursday night.”

He says the job also gives him time to take care of his young daughter after school.

McFee came to the Capitol with the group Flexible Work for New York, made up of business lobby groups and local chambers of commerce across the state. They’ve seen changes for gig economy workers happen in other states and they’re wary of some proposed changes in New York.     

Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State message, in January, condemned the treatment of gig workers, saying the state needs to set up some protections, saying “too many corporations are increasing their profits at the expense of the employee.”

“A driver is not an independent contractor simply because she drives her own car on the job. A newspaper carrier is not an independent contractor because they ride their own bicycle. A domestic worker is not an independent contractor because she brings her own broom and mop to the job,” Cuomo said on January 8. “It is exploitive, abusive, it's a scam, it's fraud. It must stop and it has to stop here and now.”  

The governor’s views on the subject have evolved. In 2015, when New York City was attempting to regulate Uber drivers, Cuomo backed the ride sharing company and said the government should not be in the business of trying to regulate the company because it could restrict job growth.

Cuomo has not proposed any specific legislation. He instead will create a commission, made up of appointees from the governor and the legislature that will look at wages, health and safety regulations, collective bargaining and antidiscrimination protections.

If the legislature does not approve the commission’s recommendations, then the governor’s own Department of Labor would issue the new rules instead.

There are also several bills in the legislature that would add protections for gig workers and change their status.

McFee worries, though, that changes like ones that occurred recently in the state of California, where most independent contractors were reclassified as employees, would actually hurt his ability to work the way he chooses.

“If I’m told basically to be shift worker, then that pretty much takes out the entire point of doing it,” McFee said.

California’s law is under litigation. Independent truckers have successfully sued to be exempt from the law, saying it would be impossible for them to make a living if their status was changed. The media company Vox laid off 200 freelancers, saying the arrangement no longer worked under the new rules. Uber and Lyft have also filed a lawsuit.   

Christina Fisher is with the trade association TechNet, which represents 80 technology companies in the Northeast. She’s also a spokesperson for Flexible Work New York. She says the group is not against the idea of the commission, but they want to make sure they have a seat at the table when the decisions are made. She worries that if the laws are anything like the ones enacted in other states, gig workers might face restrictions that hurt their ability to make a living.

“We want to maintain the flexibility that these workers enjoy and so vitally need for their lives,” Fisher said.

The group says they know the gig economy is not “perfect.” And McFee says he is interested in some of the proposals, like one that would require workers receive health care.

“Obviously, being a professional wrestler, you get injuries,” said McFee, who said he sprained his ankle while in a match a few days ago.

“Somebody punched me in the back of the knee and my ankle popped,” he said.

McFee says in his job as an Uber and Lyft driver, he often provides rides to state government workers, including members of the governor’s own staff. He says he hopes that when they make the new rules, they will listen to people like him.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.