Labor and Technology Reporting: Two Concentric Circles

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I moved from Washington to Chicago in 2016 because I thought it would improve my reporting on workers. I joked to bewildered colleagues and sources that covering labor from Washington was a bit like covering technology from Washington: By the time the political class gets wind of a story, it’s been percolating in the economy for years.

At the time, though, I didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which labor reporting is, in effect, technology reporting. From automation and motivational games to workplace surveillance, new technology is essential to the work lives of most Americans. I often spend more time trying to figure out the machines than figuring out the humans.

For example, I spent the past few months on an article about artificial intelligence and the fashion industry. I saw it partly as a labor story, since computers are beginning to displace white-collar workers in that field and many others. But it was also an excuse to learn about a technology I only dimly understood. I investigated algorithms that could prompt sales agents, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, with the right turn of phrase at just the right moment, and others that were capable of designing parts for appliances, cars and airplanes.

In May, I was at Bombfell, a fashion start-up in New York, getting styled by Will Noguchi, who selects clothing for customers. Mr. Noguchi and his algorithms immediately pegged me for what I am — a schlub with deeply conservative fashion sensibilities — and gently eased me toward the 21st-century part of my comfort zone. (“So this is definitely one that I would go with the algorithm here,” he said, pointing to a johnnie-O T-shirt that the software had recommended.)

Still, in my more than three years on the beat, I’ve found that a lot of what we think of as shiny and new has familiar roots.

There’s perhaps no better example than the so-called gig economy, in which workers perform tasks on demand — not just ferrying around people and food, but also assembling furniture, tagging photos, rewriting blog content — and generally get paid by the task, or for a few hours at a time, rather than earn a steady wage. Admirers hail it as a job market in which workers are, finally, in control of their own destinies. But the gig economy can also be thought of as an elaborate way around an age-old problem: how to control workers without the expense of making them employees — and without breaking the law.

Take the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, which argue that their drivers are independent business owners, not employees, in large part because the drivers control when, where, and how long they work. What they don’t tell you is that the apps that govern their drivers’ work lives rely on a variety of incentives, games, design features and outright manipulations to influence the when, the where, and the how long. For example, both apps dispatch new rides to a driver before he or she has finished the current ride. In the same way that automatic queuing on Netflix appears to encourage binge-watching, this feature appears to encourage a kind of binge-driving. (Uber and Lyft say the feature helps drivers by reducing idle time.)

And while technology may be creating new ways of organizing work, that doesn’t mean we need to rethink the rights and protections workers deserve. It’s become fashionable in the tech world to argue that we need a third way to classify workers who aren’t obviously employees and aren’t obviously independent contractors, and that this third way should afford them some but not all the protections of employment. But if you talk to enough gig economy entrepreneurs about their businesses, you begin to have doubts.

In 2013, about two years after it started, an on-demand food preparation and delivery service called Munchery converted its drivers from contractors to employees. While the move cost about 20 to 30 percent more upfront, the benefits of being able to summon forth enough drivers during periods of high demand made it a better deal for the company in the end. (So did the lower turnover and increased quality control.)

Cameron Kruger, a driver for Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno, makes his way through Manhattan traffic to pick up a passenger while broadcasting a live video on Instagram with a friend.CreditDave Sanders for The New York Times

The essential facts of the gig economy, though, can be hard to see through the hype that often clouds tech reporting.

When I stepped off the elevator into Lyft’s headquarters in the fall of 2016, the techno music was throbbing. There were vast concrete floors and some de rigueur ductwork, and the lobby was painted in striking shades of pink and purple, the company’s signature colors. That was where I had to sign in.

As it happened, “signing in” meant entering information on a tablet screen that gradually morphed into a nondisclosure agreement, a fixture of office visits across the Bay Area in recent years. I precipitated a minor uproar by refusing to sign but was eventually waved in nonetheless. (Lyft says it doesn’t require reporters to sign; my Times colleagues don’t sign either.)

You can see how this might be subtly corrupting. You begin to think: If they want me to sign a nondisclosure agreement, there must be something transcendent going on here. (Only later do you suspect it’s as much a status symbol as a security precaution — the Silicon Valley equivalent of a line outside a club.)

There is no better antidote to this than data. For years, my colleagues and I assumed that the gig economy was growing rapidly, or at least that the share of workers in alternative, freelance-type arrangements was. (In fairness, there was credible evidence that this was true.) But a recent Labor Department survey cast a lot of doubt on this claim. We’re still trying to adjust our superlatives.

When there’s no government data to speak of, you sometimes have to round up your own numbers, guerrilla-style. Last year I spent severalweeks going back and forth with Uber about whether it had improperly deducted hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes from drivers’ pay. In the end, the only way to resolve the question was to collect as many receipts from as many cities as possible and do the math myself. A friend of a friend sent receipts from Rhode Island. We hired a stringer to forward receipts from Nevada.

While gig economy reporting may be prone to overstatement, there’s another part of the beat that tends to get shorter shrift: the rights of workers, including the right to organize. Courts have increasingly limited those rights of late. And thanks to consolidation, automation and outsourcing, much of it either driven or enabled by technology, there are vanishingly few workers who have enough market power to face down their employers alone. It’s a power dynamic that most workers don’t fully appreciate until they face a crisis.

In 2015, I went to Oregon to write about a group of hospital doctors whose employer had proposed outsourcing management of their group. Out of desperation, they formed a union, killed the outsourcing idea and eventually beat back pressure to get them to see more patients, which they considered unsafe.

“Imagine Mr. Burns sitting across the table,” one of the doctors, Rajeev Alexander, told me, comparing the experience to negotiating with the notorious “Simpsons” character.

“It was the absolute right thing — we wouldn’t be here today” without unionizing, Brittany Ellison, one of the doctors, told me at the time.

These were highly paid professionals almost universally esteemed in the eyes of the public. And yet they still felt as powerless as people at the other end of the economic spectrum. “We were trained to be leaders,” Ms. Ellison said. “But they treat us like assembly line workers.”