The Public Press Blog

David Cay Johnston: Forget Job Security in the Gig Economy

Investigative journalist David Cay Johnston and KALW-FM “Your Call” host Rose Aguilar discuss the “gig economy” at Impact HUB San Francisco. Photo by Noah Arroyo / San Francisco Public Press

A recent program took a hard, unforgiving look at the so-called gig economy and how it affects freelance and contract workers. Rose Aguilar, host of  “Your Call” on KALW public radio, interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist David Cay Johnston. The wide-ranging conversation, followed by a lively Q&A session, dissected how this new economic reality had changed the traditional workplace of salaries and benefits, and had undermined safeguards for working conditions and wages. Johnston, however, did suggest how people and the government could provide possible solutions.

The program, “Are Independent Contractors Being Shortchanged? Job Security in the Gig Economy,” was part of the Sustainable SF series in partnership with San Francisco Public Press and KALW Public Radio, and was hosted by Impact HUB San Francisco

The discussion began with defining the terms, and Aguilar frowned on the use of “sharing economy” and instead opted for the “gig economy.” The term describes workers who toil as freelancers or independent contractors, typically in jobs such as driving for Uber, delivering and providing goods and services, e.g., for TaskRabbit, and freelance writing. 

Both agreed that the demand for such labor is there. 

“I found that you can order a house cleaner, a chef, someone that will stock your bar and bartend for you, a personal shopper, a masseuse, you can pay to have your packages shipped,” Aguilar said.

She cited a recent survey by Emergent Research that found that the number of independent contractors would double by 2020, from 3.2 million now to more than 7.6 million — figures that appeared to be on the low side for Johnston and Aguilar.

“The number of people in that kind of employment is going to see a rise because that’s what the legal system is allowing to happen,” said Johnston, author of the just-published "The Making of Donald Trump."

The issues of fair wages and worker benefits are nothing new, he pointed out. 

“We have trial records from 3,500 years ago in Egypt. The ancients figured out all this stuff a long time ago," said Johnston, who teaches property, tax and regulatory law of the ancient world at Syracuse University's schools of law and management. "We have always had legal issues about how do we pay people, what’s fair in paying people, and what are the rules of how you pay people.”

Even as far as back then, he said, there were dire warnings about putting too much power into the hands of an employers.

Johnston then turned his attention to the here and now — the plight of the gig worker. It is an economy where workers live paycheck to paycheck and have no benefits, and where employers’ responsibility toward worker is diminishing and labor laws are being dismantled. 

Aguilar pointed out that independent contractors surveyed said that while they like some of the flexibility in their schedules, what they didn’t like was lack of a guaranteed a wage, paid family and sick days, and health insurance.

Not exactly a rah-rah for the gig economy, circa 2016. 

Johnston made it very clear that he is an advocate of salaries, and not of the hit-and-miss income fluctuations typical in the gig economy. 

Properly paid employees are free because they pay for themselves, he said, adding later that salaries provide a steady, reliable source of income. The only way a gig economy works is if you don’t have full employment, he noted, pointing to  San Francisco employers’ difficulty have in finding workers because many cannot afford to live in the city. 

“People show up for a salaried job. And, by the way, if we don’t do that, how are people going to afford a mortgage?" Johnston said. "How are they going to afford anything if they don’t have a steady, reliable source of income? …  Most human beings want to get a paycheck every week.”

He blamed the erosion of salaried employment on post-Ronald Reagan laws. 

Labor laws in America have changed dramatically in the 36 years since the beginning of  age of Reagan, according to Johnston.  During this time, he said, workers’ rights have been reduced along with the responsibilities of of employers toward workers. 

Aguilar’s questions then zeroed in on the following issues. 

Is there hope in unionizing?

Johnston was pessimistic about what unions can do to improve salaries and benefits for gig workers. Anti-labor laws proliferate, he said, cutting into union-organizing efforts. Instead of unions, he suggested that the government should be the stand in for workers’ rights. The government should impose laws that, for example, establish a minimum wage or, as a condition of contracting with the government, employers should  be required to pay fair wages and provide benefits. The government can set the rules, not the employers, Johnston said. 

He stressed, too, that it is important  to vote — people can vote out of office the politician who goes against their economic interests. He waxed elegiac, veering into the biblical: It is evil to take from the widow and give to a king, according to the Bible, he said. Some of that evil could be seen in the actions of the Koch brothers and their monetary influence in a Wisconsin that is now run on what he called "Kochian principles." 

He did cite victories for workers and the forces of change: the Civil War ended slavery, child labor was outlawed, women got the right to vote, and local governments are raising the minimum wage. 

But what about Uber? Aguilar said, pointing out its popularity. Johnston, however, cautioned people to look at the big picture. Salary stability and benefits are left behind in this digital age, and, unfortunately, he said, we’re stuck with antiquated rules and haven’t yet figured out how to apply them to a digital world. 

Are lawsuits — filed by independent contractors to be salaried employees — the answer?

Johnston, again, was pessimistic. He noted how advocates like Ralph Nader were seen as a threat by Republicans who then appointed much of the judiciary. The problem, he said, is you have to have judges who don’t follow some ideological pattern and weren’t picked for that, they were picked for their devotion to the principles of law” — and that situation is becoming increasingly rare.

The spirited Q&A session followed the interview, further airing the issues of the gig economy.

To learn more about wage-and-hour issues, read the San Francisco Public Press fall 2014 Special Report “Minimum Wage.”

Video by Hyunha Kim / San Francisco Public Press

Talking on the Radio About Money in S.F. Politics

Public Press Assistant Editor Noah Arroyo, right, with Mission Local reporter Joe Rivano Barros, at Photo by Laura Wenus / Mission Local


San Francisco Public Press Assistant Editor Noah Arroyo discussed money in city elections with Mission Local reporter Joe Rivano Barros on radio Thursday morning. The show was hosted by Mission Local Managing Editor Laura Wenus.


“The first rule of politics is: follow the money,” Wenus said.

Arroyo’s latest stories unpack a November ballot measure to limit lobbyists from “bundling” certain campaign contributions from several sources. If passed, the measure would also further restrict gift-giving and require lobbyists to notify the San Francisco Ethics Commission whom they will contact beforehand. But Arroyo has already identified possible loopholes.

“A lot of this stuff is complaint-driven,” Arroyo said on the possibility of donations being anonymously bundled into a single contribution when they actually come from a handful of wealthy individuals. “And when it comes to gift-giving, the city doesn’t even track it.”

Barros analyzed campaign finance records in this year’s District 9 supervisor race using public records released this week by the Ethics Commission. There is a $100,000 gap between Hillary Ronen, chief of staff of termed-out D9 Supervisor David Campos, and her closest competitor, Joshua Arce, the community liaison for Laborers Union Local 261. Only Ronen has accepted lobbyist funds so far -- $2,700, or just over 1% of her campaign’s total.  But a third-party committee funded by the Police Officers Association and labor unions has raised $180,000 and is spending thousands on promoting Arce and other candidates.

Interested in learning more about money influencing San Francisco politics? The Public Press’ summer issue, due out Aug. 10, examines the web of campaign finance in last November’s election. Stay tuned!

Grants from Fund for Investigative Journalism and Cal Humanities

The San Francisco Public Press received two new grants this summer for investigative reporting projects: a $3,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism for follow-up reporting on sea level rise in the Bay Area — the focus of our investigative report in Issue No. 17 — and a $10,000 grant from Cal Humanities for an education reporting project.

This is the Public Press’ first grant from Cal Humanities and its fifth grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

We are grateful to Cal Humanities and the Fund for Investigative Journalism for their support.

FCC Grants Public Press LPFM License

On July 26, 2016 the Federal Communications Commission granted a broadcast license to the San Francisco Public Press for a low-power FM (LPFM) radio station on the frequency 102.5 FM. The station will be on air seven days a week, 12 hours a day, in two six-hour blocks.The frequency will be shared with another nonprofit organization, San Francisco Community Radio.

The two organizations intend to collaborate on building a transmitter in San Francisco that will reach most households in the city and possibly reach parts of the Peninsula and the East Bay. For the time being the plan is to maintain two separate studios. Our aim is to start broadcasting within 18 months.

The Public Press, which currently produces a website and quarterly print newspaper focused on in-depth news and investigative reporting about public policy, plans to create its own news and public-affairs programs for the LPFM radio station and run programming from other nonprofit partners.

We have pledged to work with San Francisco Community Radio on the joint construction and maintenance of a broadcast tower, and also will engage in some joint marketing, cross-promotion and exchange of technical knowledge and volunteer capabilities. We jointly have pledged to stay on the air 24 hours a day every day. The Public Press will be on the air every day from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. San Francisco Community Radio will broadcast from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

The San Francisco Public Press is not currently engaged in radio broadcasting, and we expect that it will take at least 12 months to build our transmitter, set up a studio and begin broadcasting on our LPFM station.

If you would like to participate in community planning conversations about the new LPFM station, send an email to radio [at] sfpublicpress [dot] org and ask to be added to the LPFM planning list.

City Officials, Experts Grapple With Looming Sea Level Rise

San Francisco Public Press Executive Director and Editor Michael Stoll (far right) presented findings from the Summer 2015 investigation on sea level rise in the Bay Area. From left, Beckie Zisser, with Save the Bay; J. Letitia Grenier, from the San Francisco Estuary Institute; Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning; and Steven Goldbeck, from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, spoke on a panel at the San Francisco Public Library's main branch earlier this month. Photo by Hye-Jin Kim / San Francisco Public Press


The Bay Area is a long way from being prepared for impending sea level rise.

That was the assessment from experts in City Hall, regional government agencies and environmental groups at a discussion convened by the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Association. The meeting, held at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch, was moderated by Michael Stoll, executive director of the Public Press.

“The good news: Everyone is paying attention, now and I’m struggling to figure out what to do,” said Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning for the city.


Video by Hyunha Kim / San Francisco Public Press

The other panelists at the July 13 event were J. Letitia Grenier, senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute; Beckie Zisser, policy campaign manager for Save the Bay; and Steven Goldbeck, chief deputy director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Officials have long been aware of the need to fortify urban areas against rising seas but have taken years to begin to study the problem. The city’s civil grand jury, a volunteer panel convened by the state courts to independently audit local government, criticized the city’s anemic response to the threat in a report in 2014.

The Public Press published an investigation on sea level rise in the summer 2015. Through an independent mapping project, the report documented 27 megadevelopments that were in the permitting process or already under construction in areas under 8 feet of elevation — a plausible upper-range zone of flooding by the end of the 21st century, according to scientific models. The report concluded that San Francisco, dozens of other cities and counties and regional agencies had few tools to plan for climate change or prevent or alter the most problematic development on the waterfront during the current building boom.

In March, an interagency panel in San Francisco published the Sea Level Rise Action Plan highlighting properties at risk and summarizing possible methods to protect them, from levee construction to wetland restoration.

The city acknowledged the importance of both local and regional cooperation. It also estimated the cost of inaction: $77 billion in the case of a 100-year flood (an event estimated to have a 1 percent likelihood in any given year).

The report offered some potential ways to address sea level rise, but it was not comprehensive and did not propose changes to building regulations. That leaves the Planning Department to grapple with what Kelley called “a design challenge”: to develop a citywide plan by 2018.

A good plan might include “retreat” — moving development zones further inland, Kelley suggested. But that and other solutions could be unpopular.

“For example, who would be in favor of a 9-foot concrete wall along the Embarcadero?” Kelley asked. “But what else should we do — build offshore? Raise buildings on shore?”

While the Planning Department prepares to adapt, some regional coordination efforts are underway.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission was created in 1965 to prevent builders and local governments from overfilling the bay. Any development project within 100 feet of the shoreline needs the commission’s approval.

But four years ago, the commission’s procedures shifted and it began requiring all projects to plan for midcentury estimates of sea level rise. The estimate in 2011 was 16 inches; it has gone up since.

“We were established to stop the bay from shrinking,” Goldbeck said. “Now we have to address an expanding bay that is going to come up on the shoreline.”

Wetland restoration is another major regional response. With the passage of Measure AA in June across the nine-county Bay Area, a flat $12 parcel tax on all properties — homes, businesses and industries alike — is expected to generate over $500 million in 20 years to restore wetlands and create new ones.

Grenier, of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, suggested that these projects could be a long-term and inexpensive way to mitigate the combined effects of sea level rise and storm surges, since wetlands can dampen large waves and give communities more time to evacuate in an emergency. The restoration is an alternative to maintaining concrete walls and levees, she said.

Wetlands buffer shores from higher and stronger tides. New sediment deposited by wave action allows them to grow vertically as the sea rises. However, it is uncertain whether wetlands can grow fast enough to keep up.

“We have to gamble that sea level rise will slow down,” Grenier said. “No one has a 30-foot plan. But if you wait too long, you can’t have the wetland option.”

Stoll questioned the fairness of a flat tax to cover the cost of wetland restoration. Measure AA will apply to all landowners, whether they are low-income residents living miles from the shore or multibillion-dollar companies with newly built waterfront headquarters.

“It was an unfortunate political reality that we had to compromise,” said Zisser, of Save the Bay, a leading proponent of the measure. “If we didn’t compromise with these economic interests, we wouldn’t have been as successful. Nothing polled as high as a flat parcel tax. It’s something we all benefit from, regardless of where we live.”

Further reading:

#PublicPressLive: San Francisco for Democracy Talks Gentrification, Mission Fires

This year, the Public Press is visiting San Francisco neighborhood and community groups to talk about civic issues that are overlooked in the press.

Executive Director Michael Stoll spoke with members of San Francisco for Democracy on June 29.

Members discussed gentrification, the spate of fires in the Mission District, lost law enforcement weapons and the role of community groups in San Francisco. Member Jeff Whittington wondered about the number of empty investment properties in the city. 

"How many are just things that are being built for people who will never live there, but want to put their money into housing in San Francisco?" 

Hear more from San Francisco for Democracy members below. 

Photography and videography by Hye-Jin Kim. Video edited by Hyunha Kim. 

#PublicPressLive: SF Green Party Talks Candidate Debates, Privatizing the Post Office

This year, the Public Press is visiting San Francisco neighborhood and community groups to talk about civic issues that are overlooked in the press.

Executive Director Michael Stoll spoke with members of the San Francisco Green Party on May 25.

Member Barry Hermanson — a Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives — talked about the lack of candidate debates in the 12th congressional district. He says there have been no candidate debates or forums since 1987, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi was first elected.

“By God, this is San Francisco!” Hermanson said. “And there’s been no discussion of national or international issues in this congressional district in all of that time? Is there another congressional district in the entire country where people could say the same thing?”

Hear more from Green Party members below. 

Photography and videography by Hyunha Kim. 

#PublicPressLive: San Francisco’s FDR Democratic Club Talks Disability Issues

This year, the Public Press is visiting San Francisco neighborhood and community groups to talk about San Francisco civic issues that are overlooked in the press.

Publisher Lila LaHood visited the FDR Democratic Club on June 1.

Members discussed how data-driven policy-making impacts people with disabilities, who sometimes are not reflected in official recordkeeping. They also spoke about the death of Thu Phan, a disability rights advocate who used a wheelchair. Phan was killed in a traffic accident on Market Street in February. 

Member John Alex Lowell said he believed there was a flaw in how the city’s Vision Zero program counted traffic fatalities.

“Their definiton is only those people who died under 30 days,” Lowell said. 

Hear more thoughts from FDR Democratic Club members below.

Video edited by Hyunha Kim. 

The Public Press Is Going on the Road — Where Should We Go?

"San Francisco, Downtown," by Flickr user Davide D'Amico. Used under CC license.

Earlier this year, the Public Press received an INNovation Fund grant from Institute for Nonprofit News and the Knight Foundation to forge new relationships with community groups.

Building on the success of our past outreach programs, which focused on in-person conversation on the street, this spring we hope to connect with neighborhood leaders where they already are.

In short presentations to at least 40 neighborhood, professional, religious and political groups, we plan to host discussions about San Francisco civic issues that are often overlooked in the press and on broadcast news.

Our goal is to share our experiences doing issue-based investigative reporting and solicit ideas for future reports.

We have a robust list of San Francisco organizations, but we want to hear from you: What groups should we reach out to?

Investigation on Segregation in Schools Nominated for State and National Awards

The San Francisco Public Press has been named a finalist in the Education Writers Association’s 2015 National Awards for Education Reporting and in the California Teachers Associaion’s 2015 John Swett Awards for Media Excellence.

The Public Press is a finalist for the teachers association’s award for Continuous Coverage of Schools/Education Issues for the “Choice is Resegregating Public Schools” investigative report. Entries are judged by a volunteer panel of media professionals from around California. The association will announce award winners later this spring.

The same report was nominated for the education writers’ national awards. Winners for those awards will be announced at the association’s national seminar in Boston on May 1.

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