In courtrooms around the country, startups and labor advocates are battling over whether freelancers who work in the on-demand economy should be considered employees and what sorts of rights and protections they should have. I explored this debate at length in the November issue of Inc

Outside court, however, representatives for the two sides are working more amicably to answer those questions. On Tuesday, a group of 37 startup CEOs, venture capitalists, labor leaders and academics published an open letter laying out principles for establishing new policies and instruments to support contingent workers. Among the signatories were Lyft CEO Logan Green, Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta, Handy CEO Oisin Hanrahan, and Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, as well as Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures, Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz and Coworker.org co-founder Michelle Miller. 

"New business model and technological innovations are providing a fresh opportunity to look at longstanding questions related to flexible and temporary work and the types of benefits and responsibilities workers and companies should expect," reads the letter. "We believe these issues are best pursued through policy development, not litigation, with an orientation toward action in the public, private and social sectors."

Lyft, Handy and Instacart have all been named as defendants in lawsuits that accuse them of misclassifying their workers, exerting a degree of control over their work consistent with employment while denying them the benefits and protections of employees, such as Social Security contributions. 

I met with Hanrahan from Handy while reporting my feature and he mentioned that he was a member of a sort of working group that was attempting to rethink the labor issues raised by companies like his, which provides on-demand handyman and cleaning services. He wasn't yet ready to lift the lid on what they were up to, however.

I also spoke with Horowitz, who cited the "portable benefits network" Freelancers Union established as a potential model for the sort of institutions that might allow for people to pursue contingent jobs in the on-demand economy without sacrificing the safety net that comes with traditional employment. "What we really need to do is make it so that no matter what your status is, your social protections should be equal," she told me. 

The open letter is thin on policy proposals but name-checks the Affordable Care Act as the kind of legislation needed to support new ways of working. With national-level politicians like Hillary Clinton and Mark Warner increasingly taking an interest in the plight of on-demand workers, this effort is bound to generate a lot more suggestions. 

Published on: Nov 10, 2015