Gig economy provides a shifting ground for Colorado’s recovery | Joey Bunch | Government

“Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote 100 years ago, doubtfully thinking of Colorado.

I think of her “Second Fig,” however, when I size up Colorado’s economy.

We as a state and Denver as a city have grown fat and happy since the last recession, but that foundation has never been solid, and the pandemic is exposing that. Colorado flourishes on tourism, cheap labor, agriculture and oil and gas, not necessarily in that order. They’re all underwater, and who knows what waves it’ll cause when they reemerge.

Gig workers and independent contractors were included in the $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last month, tipping the hat to their vital role in the economy. A Pandora’s box of political and constitutional questions spilled out with it.

The Paycheck Protection Program will help sidelined gig workers and contractors get by, as the government extends a bailout program to these kinds of workers for the first time.

Applying for the lifeline, however, is proving to be a bureaucratic nightmare, based on complaints and reports, as a federal agency that normally handles about 220,000 claims a week suddenly faced more than 16 million newly jobless Americans. Gridlock ensued, and my conservative friends flagged it as what happens when government tries to help — big promises, mixed results, and taxpayers are left to clean up the mess with more money.

How many gig workers are covered in Colorado is still anybody’s guess, partly because a lot of such jobs are side hustles.

My pal Joe Rubino at The Denver Post cited a state Department of Labor official’s hunch that 371,000 gig workers and contractors might qualify for unemployment benefits. That’s nearly 12% of last September’s workforce. Gulp.

Such an impact, exponentially, will rumble through the American economy. An NPR/Marist poll in 2018 indicated one in five jobs in the U.S. was held by an independent contractor. By 2029, they could comprise 50% of the U.S. workforce. Double gulp.

Putting taxpayers on the hook for their benefits is significant: free unemployment today, free health care tomorrow.

Extending money is immensely compassionate and vital to keep the gig workers and the economy afloat. It’s not without consequences and questions about who’s really getting the government freebies, however.

The Washington Post noted on April 2:

“For years, Uber, Lyft and their industry peers have contended their workers are not employees and sought to stave off regulation that would upset their business models. As a result, these companies have avoided paying taxes into the pot of government funds that ultimately covers workers when they are out of a job. Amid the pandemic, their approach has prompted fresh criticism that Silicon Valley essentially received an undeserved government bailout.”

You know who else is eligible for benefits as gig workers? Pastors. The bailout provides paycheck protection for churches to pay their clergy, who, granted, mostly work on Sundays. The pews and collection plates, however, are empty and the preacher has to eat.

That raises lots of interesting questions about the wall behind church and state and the tax-exempt status that houses of worship enjoy. I don’t have the answer, but the courts are certain to face the question.

Union organizers and advocacy groups on the left, meanwhile, are stepping up for front-line workers, rolling out a platform with sturdy philosophical planks: paid leave, affordable health care, job security, stable housing and worker safety.

The Denver Area Labor Federation, the hub of organized labor in the city, wants front-line workers to be designated as first responders, opening them up to more protections and benefits.

“We believe these workers should get hazard pay, be prioritized for COVID-19 testing and PPE and receive other benefits of being a first responder in a time of crisis,” said Josh Downey, president of the federation.

It’s not a broad jump to extend those benefits to gig workers and contractors. Government generosity spreads like warm syrup during a crisis until it becomes an expectation.

This doesn’t seem like something Colorado can afford to botch, now that the seal is broken on who gets a worker’s safety net. It’s barely an understatement to say the soul of who we are as a state depends on it.

Colorado needs this migration of innovators and young people bringing their energy, commitment, cheap salary requirements and the love of their adopted home to compete in a state that’s always invited newcomers to come West and stake a claim.

The first gig workers in these parts panned for gold and trapped for furs. Chief Niwot cursed us transplants. He said we could never be happier anywhere else.

The U.S. Census Bureau said just 42.5% of the people who live in Colorado were born in Colorado.

The reason Colorado is such a magnet to gig workers and go-it-alone entrepreneurs is the opportunity. A future mindful of that spirit needs to be protected as the federal and state governments rebuild this economy. Failing that test makes us Alabama with snow.

Colorado grew 14.5% in the 2010s. Alabama grew 2.6%, according to the U.S. Census.

The Yellowhammer State should wish for our kind of problems.

“Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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