While Supporting Workers, Beware Unintended Consequences


In my field of organizational psychology, one of the hot topic areas of study is flex-work. More and more companies are embracing flexible work hours as the best way to attract and retain high-quality employees looking for work-life balance. Writer and consultant Alexandra Levit predicts that as workers increasingly value flexible work hours, the nine-to-five workday would cease to exist by 2030.

Along with the growing demand for flexibility and freedom at work, workers demand laws protecting their rights. Yet these very laws are often the ones chipping away at freedom and flexibility.

Take California’s AB5 for example. The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1 of this year, makes it much harder for companies to classify their workers as independent contractors. Many well-known companies like Uber and DoorDash are part of this “gig economy,” where business is carried out primarily by individuals who pick up the job as a side gig.

The intention was good. Reclassifying independent contractors as full employees grants them additional rights to minimum pay guarantees, health benefits and more. We should fight for these things.

But the unfortunate result of AB5 is that few individuals are seeing such benefits. For most, AB5 has taken away their freedom and flexibility. I wrote in the American Spectator last September that the law actually punishes the 76 percent of Lyft employees who work a minimal number of hours per week, taking away their hours and giving them instead to full-time drivers who can accept a regular, predetermined work schedule. It destroys the livelihood of those who depend on convenient side gigs to make ends meet. As a gig worker myself who was living in California at the time, I knew just how valuable it was to have the freedom and flexibility to pick up hours when I wanted to.

Other industries are being punished by the law as well, from freelance writers to medical transcriptionists. A petition started by independent musicians outlining the pain caused by AB5 has reached over 165,000 signatures.

AB5 isn’t the only law that’s taken away freedom in the supposed name of workers’ rights. A 2016 attempt to change the overtime exemption proposed an 100 percent increase in the minimum salaried (as opposed to hourly) pay rate, which would have resulted in millions of workers losing their freedom to work flexible hours for a flat salary and instead becoming forced to clock in and out to be paid by the hour. More recently, Bernie Sanders has called for ending at-will employment, which would eliminate both companies’ ability to fire workers whenever they want and workers’ ability to quit their jobs whenever they want, supposedly to increase job security.

Workers’ rights are of utmost importance. Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of us are, or will be, employees working for employers, and we all must work together to protect our interests and improve our daily lives.

But we should proceed cautiously. It’s easy to get carried away in demanding more laws but forgetting that they come with a cost. In many situations, this cost comes in the form of giving up some of the freedom that we have fought so hard to receive. As the working world moves more and more towards work-life balance and flexible scheduling, short-sighted laws such as AB5 will leave the less fortunate in the dust.