Ex-Postmates VP of global public policy on the future of gig work

Vikrum Aiyer, the now-former vice president of global public policy and strategic communications at Postmates, penned a memo to his former colleagues and other stakeholders in the gig economy outlining what he thinks needs to happen next in the industry.

In his letter, Aiyer says “it would be a mistake for us to think that mild tweaks to worker classification, or a single state ballot measure, create a durable path forward for meaningfully addressing what Americans truly worry about: the chance to work, take care of their families, and not fret about what comes next.”

He goes on to say how tech platforms, labor advocates and other stakeholders “are not willing to evolve and give an inch on their respective models,” which means “we’ll never see progress that both empowers on-demand work and improves the social safety net.” Aiyer wants “this uncivil war that pits workers against capital, tech against labor unions, conservative versus liberal” to end.

In the letter, Aiyer puts forth a handful of recommendations for on-demand tech companies. He proposes, for example, that companies give board seats with voting rights to workers, embrace portable benefits “that can close the gap between what’s available to W2 and independent workers” and consider sectoral bargaining for gig workers.

Sectoral bargaining for independent workers would be an innovative reform that could provide sector-wide floors on earnings and benefits, while retaining IC classification. Some in organized labor have suggested extending the right to bargain for all workers –regardless of classification. Before industry dismisses this outright, and since this has not been done before in the US, it warrants critical examination by Congress, the GAO, or university labor centers to explore how card check rules, antitrust laws, and federal preemptions would be accounted for. In concept, this could empower workers and prevent less scrupulous companies from gaining a competitive advantage with a race to the bottom.

While Aiyer, along with Postmates and Uber, was a proponent of California’s Proposition 22, which legally classified gig workers as independent contractors, he says he does not want a carbon copy of it to be implemented throughout the country.

“While Prop 22 was a step forward when it comes to the argument that tech is making of balancing worker flexibility with more benefits on top of the 1099 status, there are two issues that need to prescribe the rest of the path forward,” he told TechCrunch.

The first is that this type of work has become rather popular, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to millions of lost jobs throughout the country. Secondly, Aiyer says it’s important to get input from workers as companies push similar legislation either in other parts of the country, or at the federal level.

Aiyer pointed to a key difference in Postmates couriers in Los Angeles versus New York. In Los Angeles, Aiyer said many Postmates couriers are in cars while in New York, many are on bikes. Prop 22 put forth a new floor for insurance standard, but “that might not be the same type of coverage someone on a bike wants.”

“Prop 22 established a floor for California, but it certainly is not the ceiling of broader safety net reforms and what a nationwide policy should look like,” he said.

But for some gig workers, they have long said they don’t want to be independent contractors — even if that does come with some extra benefits. Instead, some have said they want to be employees and be entitled to the full range of benefits that W-2 status provides.

Ultimately, Aiyer thinks it’s a false dichotomy to have a binary in our society where there are workers with benefits and independent workers without.

“What about having both a W-2 full-time employee model and you can raise the standard of independent work to a new height of benefits and you can have both,” Aiyer said. “But to do that in a way that is inclusive to workers and labor advocates, you need to have a reset of those conversations, which haven’t really been taking place since AB 5.”

Aiyer, whose last day at Uber-owned Postmates was in early January, told me he hopes for his letter to reinvigorate conversations between the different stakeholders in the space. As for him, Aiyer told me his next professional move will be doing public interest work.

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