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Google and the Gig Workers: What Other Employers Can Learn

​In December, Google's temporary, vendor and contract workers (TVCs) rose up to demand benefits and communication equal to what Google's regular staff members receive. They pointed to both practical and emotional issues. As Vox reported, they wrote a letter to senior management in which they noted:

  • Lack of communication about safety issues. They were left out of communications sent to full-time employees warning them of a shooting on the Google-owned YouTube campus, "leaving TVCs defenseless in the line of fire."
  • Ongoing insecurity and uncertainty over contract renewals.
  • Lack of access to learning and development resources and training that full-time workers have.
  • Lack of access to better pay and benefits like "high-quality healthcare, paid vacations, paid sick days, holiday pay, family leave, and bonuses."

The letter claimed that the "exclusion of TVCs from important communications and fair treatment is part of a system of institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination." Contractors wear red badges; employees wear white. Employees often receive perks like hors d'oeuvres, even beer, during meetings; contractors are asked to return to their desks.

The concerns are compelling, but there are fundamental differences between contractors and full-time staff. Employers can't treat gig workers the same as regular employees, but they can treat them better than they have been, experts say.

A Legitimate Difference

As a Google spokesperson told CNBC, "At the end of the day, TVCs … are an important part of the workforce, but they are not Google employees and not privy to the same confidential company information that full-time Googlers are."

[Visit SHRM's Resource Page on Independent Contractors]

Scott Absher is CEO of ShiftPixy, a scheduling and recruiting platform for managing contingent shift workers that is based in Irvine, Calif. He said many workers in contract positions are actually employees of the staffing firms that placed them in the contract position. They're likely exempt from receiving perks from the company they perform work for but would receive benefits (like workers' compensation, for example) from the staffing firm that directly hires them. However, he agrees with the TVCs that there is an apparent upside to being a direct employee of the company and that Google can make concerted efforts to ensure that contractors are entitled to equal treatment to the extent that it is able.

What's Holding Employers Back?

One reason employers keep contractors at arm's length is a concern over crossing the lines that separate contractors from employees.

Tracey Malcolm is a managing director and one of the leaders of the Future of Work initiatives at Willis Towers Watson. She works with many large employers on issues related to gig and contract workers. "Organizations are erring on the side of not being proactive around this because of this interpretation that there is a lot of legality and regulatory risk," she said. "As a result, they're not doing anything about recognizing the fact that they do have a mix of talent in their organization."

[HR Q&A: Is there any guidance for employers when managing the relationship with an independent contractor?]

"Google has gone to painstaking detail to categorize its workforce. Any efforts to level the playing field with regard to benefits and perquisites may blur the lines between employees and independent contractors," said Timothy Ford, a partner with law firm Einhorn Harris in New Jersey. "Any effort to satisfy temps and independent contractors by equalizing the benefits may have the unintended impact of resulting in departments of labor in certain states taking the position that employees are improperly classified as independent contractors."

Also, full-time employees—and their retirement packages, health benefits and other rewards besides food and drink—are expensive. "In an effort to minimize costs, Google, like many other firms, has an increasing number of independent contractors, temp employees and contract-based staff. In doing so, Google avoids the expensive benefit packages and perquisites that it provides to those wearing 'white badges.' "

Still, there are some practical reasons why establishing closer relationships with TVCs would be a good business decision for Google and other companies.

Engaging Gig Workers

Google's recent experience illustrates why employers need to think broadly about how to include their entire workforce in communication and relationship management initiatives. After all, anyone affiliated with your organization has the potential to positively, or negatively, impact public perceptions about your company. As the gig economy grows, this is an issue that companies will need to think more carefully and strategically about.

And the responsibility to include these workers will fall to HR. In most cases, Malcolm said, companies take the approach that supply chain procurement covers contract labor and HR covers regular full-time talent. "Our point of view is that companies need to be proactive; you can't avoid the fact that this kind of talent is increasing," she said.

Employers traditionally have focused on the legal relationships they have with contract workers and on making sure contractors are not treated as employees. Retaining contingent workers typically has not been a priority in the same way it is for full-time staff, Malcolm said. However, in the shifting employment environment, taking a more proactive approach with contingent staff is becoming increasingly important. She recommends bringing together HR, legal and supply chain leaders to decide how the organization will interact with its contingent staff members.

"That might include a combination of communication, onboarding and some other recognition programs," she said.

A good starting point is finding out how many contract workers your company has and in what areas they work. "Know exactly the kind of talent you have and what work is being performed where, and agree on the definition of the types of workers," she recommends. "Chances are, you'll be surprised at how that mix is growing." You may also find that there is not currently a strategic, consistent approach to communicating with these individuals.

"From our perspective, at the end of the day, the modern talent organization is one that thinks about the talent experience and the value proposition for all of its talent—employees, contractors, freelancers and contingents. It needs to be an area where especially HR is proactive around this, versus avoiding it because there are regulatory or co-employment risks." In fact, Malcolm said, taking a hands-off approach likely creates more risk, as Google's experience illustrates.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance business journalist in Wisconsin. 


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