One year into the global pandemic, service industry workers’ ongoing hardship exposes economic disparities in our labor force. A ramped-up vaccination effort and warmer weather months hold great promise for accelerating employment. However, efforts by organized labor to boost its power could stymie that growth. We need opportunities, especially flexible work, that put women and workers in control of their time and earnings instead of union bosses.
The pandemic significantly erased women’s gains in the labor force. Some 2.3 million women dropped out of the workforce since the start of the pandemic—including 1.5 million mothers of school-aged children. Women suffered some of the heaviest losses, such as being 80 percent of the workers who left the workforce in January.
There are two unsurprising reasons for these occurrences. First, women tend to be concentrated in the leisure and hospitality industry where employment took a nosedive because of pandemic closures. Lockdowns and severe restrictions on dining and travel eliminated millions of jobs and forced hundreds of thousands of small businesses to close—some permanently such as one in six restaurants. Second, women shouldered more of the caregiving responsibilities, especially related to school and daycare closures. Many were not lucky enough to avoid disruption to their employment by transitioning to remote work.
As devastating as the numbers are, they could have been worse had it not been for flexible opportunities, particularly in the gig economy. These opportunities allowed women to earn a living around caregiving and household duties. UberEats, DoorDash, Instacart, and Amazon launched massive hiring sprees in the early days of the pandemic that drew many women to join their ranks. Seven out of ten Instacart shoppers are women, over half UberEats and DoorDash drivers are female, and nearly half of Amazon employees identify as women.
Even before COVID-19 flexibility was of utmost importance to women working in the gig economy. A majority prefer to be independent contractors, not employees of the companies that contract their services. This is very different from the narrative that organized labor, union-backed lawmakers, journalists, and activist groups are pushing. They characterize Big Tech companies like Uber and Amazon as “plantations” run by “slave drivers” exploiting the “slaves.”
Nothing stirs Americans’ emotions more than slavery analogies, no matter how wrong and inappropriate. Opponents also describe independent contracting work through the gig economy as anti-worker, but there’s nothing more pro-worker than controlling 100 percent of your labor, schedule, and decision-making.
Independent contracting is an alternative to the employer-employee model. Gig-economy opponents uphold the outdated employer-employee model as the best option for workers, though because, among other things, traditional employees can more easily be unionized.
Freelancing is a wildly popular preference for 57 million Americans, almost half of whom are women. Nearly half of freelancers have unique circumstances, like health issues or caregiving, that prevent them from working in a traditional job. Independent contractors understand that they forgo benefits and wage guarantees that employees enjoy such as overtime, paid leave, and minimum wages. Yet they choose to be independent for other reasons.
Lawmakers should not take that choice away by enacting changes to labor laws. Congress certainly should not be in the business of choosing winners and losers among the worker classifications by prioritizing employees over independent contractors or union members over non-union members. Unfortunately, that is what the House-passed and Biden-blessed Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would do.
The PRO Act aims to energize organized labor, which has seen membership numbers plummet among private-sector workers. However, if passed, the bill will lead to independent contractors losing income and flexible work opportunities as many did when California passed similar legislation. Millions of workers prefer to negotiate directly with their employer the best compensation package for their individual, unique needs. At the same time, technology is delivering flexible employment opportunities that also meet the unique circumstances of women and workers.
Organized labor and activists view these workplace changes as threats. Therefore, they are pushing the PRO Act and corporate organizing drives such as this month’s vote to make an Alabama Amazon warehouse the first in the nation to be unionized. Not every woman wants or can hold down a traditional job. There may also be good reasons that a woman chooses not to join a union. Women want freedom, flexibility, and choices in employment. Drawing them back into the workforce can help fuel a V-shaped recovery, but that will depend on good policies and abundant opportunities, not doing organized labor’s bidding.