Why Have Employees When A Startup Provides Contract Workers With Employee-like Services

At BuzzFeed, Johana Bhuiyan profiles a new company that offers home insurance and short term car leases to Airbnb renters and Uber/Lift drivers.

The company is called Peers and according to its Executive Director, the home protection plan “provides a million-dollar personal liability coverage of anything that happens while you are renting out your home.”

And on Peers’s car program Bhuiyan writes: “Keep Driving targets the ridesharing or car service economy. Peers is partnering with short-term car lease startup Breeze to provide up to a month-long leases of cars to drivers whose cars may be being repaired as a result of an accident.”

Peers sounds like a useful service. And their mission to help contract workers do their contracted work seems sincere. What’s interesting to me is the need for Peers’s existence.

Shouldn’t companies like Airbnb and Uber provide fall-back plans to the contractors and hosts who use their platform? One reason for “no” is these safety nets would increase the operating costs of otherwise successful businesses. As Adam Cecil explains, Uber only insures its contracted drivers when passengers are in the car, not when drivers are looking for riders. And while Airbnb provides a million dollar host guarantee, it isn’t an insurance policy against personal injury. And some insurance experts warn against relying on it. For both renters and drivers, personal insurance plans don’t always kick in, since on-demand service gigs means engaging in commercial activity.

I’m getting at a larger economic and political argument over the status of independent contractors. A company like Peers acknowledges these same issues and hopes to provide a market solution to the problem. A better solution might have Airbnb provide comprehensive liability coverage to its hosts, or Uber classify its drivers as employees. Or, without pussyfooting, to explore robust political options to address stagnating incomes and the unaffordability of housing. But in these times, regulating “sharing economy” work is an idea detested, antithetical to innovation. It’s easier to just have contract workers who do business with technology companies rent replacement cars through a startup.

(In October I wrote about the consumer side of the sharing economy, riffing off Evgeny Morozov)

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