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The Professor Is In: Ric Kolenda

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Dyson Clinical Assistant Professor Ric Kolenda has been named a 2020–2021 Wilson Center Faculty Fellow, and is focusing his research on ways to better empower gig economy workers. This month, he chatted with Opportunitas on the state of the gig economy, the pandemic, and potential for policy changes and an improved entrepreneurial economy.

Dyson Clinical Assistant Professor Ric Kolenda, PhD, has focused much of his academic research on the gig economy—an ever-growing, and as the pandemic has underscored, an essential component of our economy. This year, he was awarded a fellowship from the Wilson Center of Social Entrepreneurship, and his research topic, "Empowering Entrepreneurship: Platform Cooperatives as Pathways from Gig Work to Sustainable Careers," will focus on how platform cooperativism can reduce inequality and create improved social conditions and opportunities for wealth creation for workers. 

This month, Kolenda talked with Opportunitas about his work, the state of the gig economy today, and much more. 

How did you first become interested in researching the gig economy? 

I have a background in doing freelance and consulting work—the idea of the freelance economy that has blossomed into the gig economy was something I have been always interested in, and as an academic who studies employment and job development, it’s always made sense as an area of interest.

There have been some recent surveys—the census just did an update on a survey I had written on in the mid-2010s that’s looking at the broader alternative work arrangements situation. I was interested in updating that work, and this year, it came into focus even more so because of the impact of COVID-19 on gig workers—especially the platform workers that we often associate with what we call the gig economy; platforms being the digital platforms like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, etc.

When the Wilson Center fellowship came up, I wanted to find an angle that was within this work but specific to the idea of social enterprise, and what I stumbled upon was this idea of platform cooperatives. What I like about it, is that it combines an earlier interest of mine in worker ownership and worker cooperatives as an alternative to corporate capitalism or state socialism.

I wanted to look at how this platform cooperativism approach would address some things I’ve been generally looking at within the gig economy, which is how to reduce the precariousness of the gig worker—maintaining the flexibility while providing more security.

In what ways can platform cooperativism better empower gig economy workers?

Platform cooperativism is a subset that specializes in worker-ownership for work done using digital platforms. One of the main things the platform cooperativism group talks about is the fact they offer alternatives to platform capitalism, in that they’re focusing on benefitting not just the shareholders, but the stakeholders—in other words, the workers themselves.

So, it’s a more democratic way to organize the entity, that also focuses on fairness for those workers—it’s more focused on how to create equity amongst its members and stakeholders. It’s democratic economically and socially.

How has the pandemic altered or confirmed your research hypotheses, and general outlook on the gig economy?

Gig workers have been hit particularly hard in many ways during this crisis. Many lost their work completely when the pandemic hit—and as you know, in the gig economy, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

One positive public policy change that happened early on was that the CARES Act—the initial stimulus for the COVID crisis—did include gig workers in its unemployment benefits. For the first time ever [and again in the recent extension of these benefits], these contingent workers, alternative work arrangements, whatever you’d like to call it—they were able to get unemployment insurance benefits. So that was helpful.

We already have the Affordable Care Act, which provides the ability to get health insurance when you don’t have employer insurance, that's another piece of the puzzle. The fact that public policy took that into consideration I think was helpful.

It also helped that gig workers who didn’t lose their work during COVID-19 had a lot more work. Many were considered essential workers—food delivery, for example, was put under stress. There were folks who were working too much and were more exposed to the virus in their work. That became known in the public policy sphere, and so, we need to address those things. The dependence that we’ve realized we’ve had on gig workers has made people generally more aware and more empathetic toward the gig economy in ways that might influence public policy.

But the reality is, most advances only happen—as any labor organization knows throughout the last century or so—through struggle, through conflict. What we’ve seen increasingly is organizations and workers who have been trying to use their power by organizing to put pressure on public policy and corporate entities to change their policies. One recent example of  this is in Austin, TX, where in 2016, taxi drivers revolted over policies imposed by traditional taxi franchises, and formed a co-op to compete with them. Since then, at least one of the remaining three competitors has closed, while ATX Co-op Taxi is still going strong, even after the state overrode local regulations on ride-hailing companies. We are now seeing a similar effort with the Drivers Cooperative in NYC. 

As the gig economy continues to grow, do you think there will be growing pressure for changes in policy? 

I think we will see more policies protecting gig workers. The passage of Prop 22 in California, which would have forced companies to treat workers as employees instead of independent contractors, means that states may be more hesitant to pass laws tying workers more closely to employers, but this could also put pressure on the federal and state governments to offer more direct protections for these workers.

This could also mean that private employers could offer benefits to fend off laws that could force them to do so, in the same way the threat of unionization pressures companies to improve labor relations. But the alternative is, if they don’t do those things, there is this threat of not only direct action, but also taking their labor, and working together to create alternatives to companies that currently don’t exist.

Finally, we could see more workers organizing to take on employers, using a combination of traditional labor organizing methods and the threat of moving to worker-owned cooperatives, such as the kind I am studying for the Wilson Center Fellowship.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I want to make sure that we deal with these equity and fairness issues and reduce precarity. But I also want to take a step back and ask, “what is society missing out on by not taking care of these workers?”

Freelance and gig work can be a great boon to both our economy and to workers themselves, but we must make it easier for workers to earn a decent wage while getting the benefits afforded workers in traditional work arrangements.

One of the things I’d like to see is to use the freelance economy as a bridge to creative entrepreneurship. By freeing workers from their employers, while getting many of the benefits we’ve generally associate with full-time employment, we can reduce the risk slightly, thereby creating a new generation of entrepreneurs who can bring their creativity to the marketplace.


Interested in being featured in an upcoming The Professor Is In? Email Opportunitas.