Free Enterprise

When I Met Madhu

This article was authored by David Iglesias with policy analysis by Caden Rosenbaum.

One of my favorite parts about traveling for work is chatting with the many different Uber drivers I rely on to navigate cities and airports. I’ve yet to come across a driver who doesn’t have an interesting story, and Madhu certainly set a high bar (as far as comeback stories go) for 2023.

Before the world was flipped upside down by the pandemic response, Madhu was an assistant manager. But she, like countless others, was furloughed and eventually forced to seek out a new job. This is what eventually led her into working full time in the ride-sharing economy. 

When I asked Madhu what she liked about working for Uber, she highlighted two specific advantages: more money and a schedule she was in control of. 

Eventually, her former employer offered to rehire her, but because the world was still recovering from the economic impacts of the pandemic, she was only able to work thirty hours at a maximum each week — with no benefits beyond compensation. 

Needless to say, that offer wasn’t enough to bring her back to traditional employment. She’s now celebrating five years with Uber.

After she brought up the point about benefits, I asked Madhu whether she thought it would be worth it to be reclassified as an employee for the sake of accessing coverage. She immediately expressed her opposition.  According to her, it would take away her ability to earn more money while having a flexible schedule — a non-starter in her mind.

From a public policy perspective, it is important to recognize that Madhu’s story is not unique. Many people were forced to try something new and uncomfortable during the pandemic to make ends meet. For a lot of people, the app-based gig economy that kicked off just a decade before became a lifeline. And now that the pandemic has come to an end, regulators and policy professionals alike should recognize that a “new normal” also includes the decisions by gig workers like Madhu to continue on in the gig economy instead of returning to traditional work. 

This is a shift in the economy that has similarities to the trends of the past, like the growth of office work over agriculture and manufacturing jobs. Much like the regulatory responses to these historical shifts, regulators should actively find ways to make Madhu’s choice more sustainable without getting in her way. 

This is why out-of-the-box policy solutions created with the gig economy in mind — like portable benefits plans and voluntary benefit contributions recently passed into law in Utah —  matter. 

Madhu was left with very few options after being furloughed, none of which offered basic benefits. The fact that she has chosen to remain in the gig economy means she has chosen to continue on without this protection. But that kind of all-or-nothing decision shouldn’t be accepted as the norm. A little bit of help accessing basic benefits could go a long way.