Senator Urges Labor Department, Congress to Do More for On-Demand Workers

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. AP Photo/Cliff Owen

The Senate’s foremost champion of new policies to address the economic insecurities of self-employed workers said he wishes the Bureau of Labor Statistics could conduct more surveys to better evaluate the estimated one-third of American workers now participating in the “gig economy.”

The agency’s last survey was done in 2005 and, in such a fast-changing field, “is about as valuable as a survey from 1895,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Tuesday at a symposium  titled “Advancing the Social Contract for Gig Economy Workers,” sponsored by Kelly Services and the Conference Board.

“If we don’t have the facts, it’s hard to make arguments” for new approaches to giving self-employed workers access to benefits, he said. “It will be a challenge,” he added, given President Trump’s recent proposed budget cuts, which could impose “a sequester on steroids for all non-defense discretionary spending.”

Warner, who skipped his prepared text to address a familiar audience of staffing professionals, characterized the Trump era as “extraordinary, interesting times,” but displayed little hope that Congress would address the needs of the growing number of workers whose employment is contingent on demand for their services at any given time—think Uber drivers and independent contractors.

“A third of the American workforce in 2016 was contingent, and that is likely headed toward 50 percent by 2030,” he said. Rather than “relitigate the battles of 20th century,” he said, “we need to meet the workforce of the 21st century where it is at.”

More likely the action will come from the states and localities, he said, noting that he spoke on Monday to 2,500 at the National Association of Counties, where interest in new approaches to gig workers “was palpable,” he said.

The broader issues require “a re-examination of what is really driving modern capitalism,” Warner said, faulting the free market system for its current focus on short-term profits and unwillingness to invest in maintaining a workforce the way it did before the 1990s eruption of new technologies, outsourcing, job-hopping and freelancing.

“More experimentation” is what is needed, said Warner, calling the issue a challenge for the future rather than a partisan one. Examples he cited included using some of the anticipated proceeds from federal tax reform to fund corporate training, the use of apps for individual mobile devices to monitor portable benefits programs set up by nonprofits, and a “LEED-like certification” for companies on how they treat workers.

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