Working in the gig economy comes with risks at the best of times, but the coronavirus pandemic has only deepened this, creating an extra layer of uncertainty for casual, contract and self-employed people.
Following years of calls for greater protections and benefits, there’s a chance we may well be witnessing the real underlying problems that not affording full employee benefits could bring, as unemployment is set to soar and incomes plummet.
The inherent instability of gig work
Those with income derived from working in the gig economy make a trade off: they act as their own boss and dictate their own hours of work, yet they forego many rights normally attached to employment such as sick leave, holiday pay and super contributions.
Some consider the compromise worthwhile and have turned to the unconventional form of making money to enjoy the greater flexibility and freedoms. And when all’s tracking well, it can serve as a viable and dependable source of income.
However, the cracks in the gig model really begin to show when things aren’t tracking well, as is very much the case today worldwide. There’s no accrued leave to take whilst weathering the storm, no company-paid super to access early if things get desperate and certainly no redundancy payments should the work completely dry up.
That’s looking to be the case as many businesses shut their doors, cull staffing levels and make deep cuts in an effort to keep paying the bills. Things for temporary and casual workers are beginning to look very bleak.
And with all the uncertainty and lack of support, experts are concerned that gig workers will continue to take on labour opportunities even if they should be self-isolating, as the total and sudden loss of income would crush them financially.
Gig workers in healthcare: The multiple whammy
One sector which has actually seen a surge in workloads as opposed to a drop is healthcare. Governments have been ramping up efforts to increase capacity, set up temporary clinics and hospitals and ensure staffing levels are sufficient to cover the inevitable increase in demand.
So whilst this may sound good for those temporary and contract staff in health looking to pick up extra hours and keep the money coming in, there exists the perfect storm of gig economy risks and occupational hazards.
One only has to consider: What would happen to a healthcare worker if they became infected with Covid-19 yet they didn’t have any entitlement to sick leave to keep money coming whilst they isolate at home (or indeed become a patient of their very own colleagues)?
This is exactly what gig workers in the sector face, as their risk of infection is elevated, but they don’t have the safety net to get them through should they find themselves out of work. It’s a scary prospect.
What’s more, there are concerns that the stress and scope of this pandemic will take a unique toll on the mental health of healthcare workers. This won’t necessarily discriminate between those who have access to company mental health support services, or Medicare-covered mental health plans (i.e employees), and those who don’t (i.e temporary and gig workers).
And it doesn’t stop there. The risks grow even greater still for temporary and casual workers in the healthcare sectors who aren’t Australian citizens or residents with access to Medicare. They work with the risk of contracting Covid-19, would be forced to take unpaid sick leave and potentially face costly medical bills should they become ill.
Aged care a particular cause for concern
One area within the healthcare sector that finds itself dealing with new and sudden challenges is aged care, as the elderly have been identified as particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The increasing number of contract and casual staff in the industry will play an important role in protecting their clients’ health and wellbeing, and at the same time they will be placed at greater risk of infection as they spend their shifts in the company of people susceptible to infection.
Keeping aged care carers healthy will be critical, as will keeping at home those who fall ill, a measure that could cause deep financial hardship for contract workers in the industry. Aged care providers will most certainly have to reschedule shifts and carers in order to ensure that all clients continue to receive quality and safe care.
With a high death rate in the age group expected, the emotional toll on workers who care for their clients gives potential for mental health issues amongst the professionals.
Government support for non-employees and casuals uncertain
With sector after sector falling victim to the economic fallout over the Covid-19 coronavirus, governments are pulling together massive stimulus packages in an attempt to keep people in work, encourage investment and thus keep the economy afloat.
This has resulted in nearly 10% of national GDP being dedicated to stimulus and payments, with that number likely to rise, an unprecedented amount of public cash.
The federal government recently announced support payments of up to $1,500 fortnightly to those who have had their hours or workloads reduced, in the aim of keeping them employed.
Another piece of good news is the government’s waiving of the normal week-long waiting period for the sickness allowance payment, which casual and gig workers could be eligible for if they fall ill.
However for those who are self employed, they will be forced to navigate these support packages and application processes on their own. Just how much they will end up being entitled to will depend on their situation. For casuals, they will need to have been at their job for at least 12 months, posing further challenges for those who recently began at their company.
But again, these payments are only applicable if the worker is Australian or otherwise eligible for Centrelink. Many non-permanent employees will remain at risk of significant financial hardship as they are foreigners. With borders shut and global aviation at a standstill, returning home may not be an option.
Some companies like ride service Uber have announced financial support for those drivers who test positive for Covid-19. But it remains a voluntary move on the company’s behalf, not a statutory one, and the amount has not been made known publicly.
The end of the current gig model?
It would be fair to bring into question how the gig economy will be impacted and to what extent as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.
The industry had already been facing movements from governments around the world to require workers to be classed as employees so that in turn they receive full benefits and protections. The US state of California has already legislated this, and other jurisdictions such as New York are looking to follow suit.
The full extent of the financial pain inflicted on both companies and individuals is yet to be seen, however a review of gig, contract and casual workers conditions should be expected, as governments will assess how best to prevent mass unemployment once the recovery from Covid-19 gets underway. Tighter regulations and better protections could be on the cards.
Unequal hard times
Whilst the gig economy has generated new forms of work and opened up alternative ways to make money, it also risks leaving workers vulnerable to insecurity during times of crisis.
The full fallout for those not backed by an employment contract and the employment law remains to be seen, but the early signs don’t look good. For now it appears that these tough times are highlighting the unequal rights and wellbeing of workers across industries.
Contact us if you have questions regarding ShiftCare’s Rostering software and understand how we can help during this time of uncertainty.