Pando

Already under scrutiny for worker relations, Amazon courts controversy with Home Services

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 30, 2015

From The News Desk

Amazon has joined Uber and Lyft in blurring the line between independent contractors and legitimate employees with Home Services, a platform for customers looking for handymen, cleaners, and other on-demand workers.

The company is presenting itself as a middleman through which customers can find these workers. Everyone hired through the platform works for a contractor, runs their own business, or finds gigs through another service, like TaskRabbit.

But Amazon isn't only connecting workers and consumers. The company vets workers with "a combination of media searches, online interviews, and reference checks." It also requires them to pass background checks, tasks them with meeting "ongoing performance targets," and tracks their license and insurance.

These workers are employed by Amazon in everything but name. How else would you describe someone who is found through what resembles a traditional hiring process, is tasked with meeting certain performance standards, and is told to keep their license and insurance information on file with a specific company?

Amazon won't be the only company struggling to navigate this line. Handy, another platform that allows people to hire on-demand workers, has been sued for handling workers like employees in some ways and contractors in others. And of course Uber, Lyft, and Mechanical Turk have been contending with this issue for years, as Fast Company reports:

Lawsuits like the one being brought against Handy are just the most threatening cloud in a brewing storm. Uber drivers have protested in San Francisco and Los Angeles and gone on strike in New York. Anecdotes in high-profile stories about Homejoy, a cleaning service similar to Handy, detail grueling hours and so little pay that in one instance, the worker was homeless. Workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online platform that pays independent contractors cents per task, recently orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to Jeff Bezos asking for him "to see that Turkers are not only actual human beings, but people who deserve respect, fair treatment, and open communication." Legally, Uber and Lyft are also facing charges of misclassifying workers, and a case against an online work platform called Crowdflower that uses independent contractors to complete tasks is in the process of being settled.
It's strange that Amazon would choose to introduce Home Services now. Other companies like Uber are being taken to court for (allegedly) misclassifying workers, and this is hardly the first time Amazon has been being carefully scrutinized for its relationship with workers.

The company has come under fire for not paying employees for time spent waiting to be frisked when they try to leave the warehouse, and for the way it treats Mechanical Turk workers. Amazon also "asked" seasonal employees to sign non-compete agreements until recent reports exposed the practice to the public.

Home Services seems like a no-brainer for consumers. Hiring contractors who have passed background checks and using Amazon to pay them? Seems like a better way to hire on-demand workers than flipping through a telephone book.

But for the workers found on that service, a more important question remains: if Amazon hires and treats them like employees, why should they be classified as independent contractors who lack the protections of full-time workers?

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]