116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There are no strings attached for an independent contractor. As a person with a chronic condition whose health prevents me from working a full-time job, I loved that.
Driving for Uber, a popular ride-share service, was such a blessing. With my earnings came financial freedom via income that supplemented my disability benefits. With the flexibility came my ability to choose my working hours and stay home when I felt unwell, never feeling at risk of losing my job for taking too many sick days.
The opportunity was there when I was ready to start driving again. Still there were the vulnerable college students needing rides back to their dorm after dark, the travelers needing picked up from the airport, the tipsy partygoers who were more likely to avoid driving themselves home when Uber drivers were just around the corner.
Everyone in my community stood to gain something from my work as an independent contractor. But we stand to lose in a terrible way if workers like me are stripped of our right to independently operate.
According to studies by independent research firm Edelman Intelligence, 57 million Americans worked as independent contractors, or 'freelancers' in 2019, representing 35 percent of the workforce. Remarkably, this study was done before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. By July of 2020, the number of freelancers had risen to 59 million, despite 10 percent of existing freelancers pausing their work due to the pandemic. More than half of them set their own rates, and 60 percent reported feeling that they'd make the same income or more as freelancers than working for a traditional employer. In multiple aspects such as mental health, financial strength and overall well-being, freelancers across the board were less likely to report negative impacts from COVID-19 and were less likely to report being concerned about the future.
On February 4, the dubiously named Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act was introduced in the United States Congress. If the PRO Act were to pass, businesses who use independent contractors would be forced to hire those contractors as regular employees, unless the contractor's work met three specific and virtually impossible standards. Reclassifying contractors as employees would require significant costs from the employer, and those costs would likely be reflected in changes such as lost jobs, strict work schedules for those who keep their jobs, and revised compensation methods resulting in smaller paychecks.
If my medical conditions were ever to warrant extended time off for surgical procedures, COVID-19 concerns or general malaise, I would once again be subject to the bureaucratic nightmare of medical leave laws that weren't enough to protect me from losing my last full-time permanent job.
Further, in a giveaway to labor unions that contribute millions of dollars to the majority party, the PRO Act would reinstate 'fair share' fees that were deemed unfair by the Supreme Court in the landmark Janus v. AFSCME decision. Even if I refused to join, money could be forcibly taken from my hard-earned paycheck to pay dues to unions which often reject merit for seniority and demand conformity to ideals that are counter to mine. Worse, the money from those dues could be used to support political causes and candidates whose agendas I oppose, effectively forcing me to financially contribute to their campaigns.
Notably, the PRO Act has already been tried — with miserable results — as state law in California. When the much-bemoaned Assembly Bill 5 took effect on January 1, 2019, Vox Media, a national mass media company, cut hundreds of freelance writing jobs in lieu of hiring their California-based contractors as regular employees. Musicians, traveling nurses, licensed therapists, transcriptionists, actors, sign language interpreters, marketing consultants and workers of many other professions experienced the loss of paid work. Although California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to exempt app-based drivers from the law, and legislative amendments were made to exempt a limited number of other professions, countless industries remain harmed by the changes forced upon them by AB5.
One year ago, I gave my last Uber ride to a hospital nurse coming off a long shift. Then I signed out of my account for one final time, knowing that the money I had already earned would see me through the financial uncertainty of the coming weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we sprint to the finish line of vaccinations and herd immunity, will the opportunity still be waiting for me when I'm finally ready to drive again? Or will it have been stolen from me by lawmakers and bureaucrats wielding virtually unchecked authority over the affairs of entrepreneurs like me?
To see the PRO Act become federal law is to see millions of independent contractors lose the flexibility to earn and innovate, while radical unions line their pockets and the pockets of the politicians to whom they've traded influence for power. It is imperative that workers like me with special needs retain the power to chart our own paths. The PRO Act must not pass.
Althea Cole is an independent contractor living in Cedar Rapids. She has battled a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis for over 28 years.