In San Antonio, a young emergency room doctor is struggling to find a full-time job. In California, Albertsons announced its grocery stores would lay off delivery drivers and hire replacements through third-party services instead.
These disparate events are united by one megatrend that illustrates the changing, and increasingly precarious, nature of work in this country: You don’t actually work for the people you work for.
What makes emergency medicine like grocery delivery? The fact that the jobs increasingly come from nationwide firms that specialize in a particular employment niche across tens, hundreds, or thousands of different workplaces.
In medicine, that might mean a paycheck coming from a private equity–backed firm like Envision Healthcare or TeamHealth. In grocery delivery, it means a household name like Grubhub or UberEats. In either case, it means that people who do the work, whether it’s stitching up bullet wounds or dropping off tomato sauce, have been professionally detached from their own workplaces.
The business professor David Weil calls this web of subcontracting, franchising, third-party management, and outsourcing the “fissured workplace,” and wrote a book of the same name in 2014. The most familiar case might be Apple, Nike, and other blue-chip American retail brands whose products are made not just overseas, but by little-known foreign subsidiaries. The outsourcing protects the bottom line, but the subcontracting protects the brand from accountability, liability, and scandal.
But as Weil observed, this arrangement is also commonplace within workplaces where people toiled side by side. “In hotels,” he wrote, “the pace and nuances of work are set by the brand (for example, Hilton); day-to-day human resource functions and oversight of the workforce are handled by an independent hotel operating company (for example, Tharaldson Lodging); and the employee may receive her paycheck from a staffing company hired by the hotel operator, rendering the owners of the property little more than the ultimate wallet from which pay is dispensed.” Weil estimated that more than four in five hotel workers actually worked for relatively anonymous contractors.
These Russian dolls of contractor arrangements, Weill argues, are linked to lower pay, fewer benefits, and less employer accountability—but they also indicate a more fundamental shift in the nature of a workplace. A hotel room cleaner at a hotel that employs its employees might get to fill in at the front desk sometimes, an informal audition for a management role. That kind of lateral and upward churn is unlikely to occur under the banner of Hotel Cleaners International. Needless to say, those workers won’t get a bonus, either, if Marriott stock has a good year.
These days, this issue is sometimes overshadowed by the related question of whether companies like Uber treat their workers as employees or pretend they are independent taxi drivers who just happen to work with Uber. In most cases, though, it’s firms you’ve never heard of that are the biggest contractors.
A good example is Google, where according to the New York Times temps and contractors outnumbered full-time employees 121,000 to 102,000 in 2019. “Though they often work side by side with full-timers, Google temps are usually employed by outside agencies. They make less money, have different benefits plans, and have no paid vacation time in the United States,” the Times reported. This two-tier system has been one motivating factor in workplace organizing at the company, which culminated this week in the announcement of a 220-member union.
But more often, at Google and everywhere else, this nebulous hiring system makes it harder for workers to organize. A Grubhub delivery worker won’t share a boss, a wage, or a health care plan with the Vons employee who helps load his car—a corporate hedge against workers finding common cause. In March, at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington, the doctor Ming Lin lost his ER job of 17 years after he publicly stated his concerns about the hospital’s COVID-19 protocols. Lin was technically employed by the staffing group TeamHealth, which denied he had been fired and said he was an “employee awaiting reassignment.” (He’s suing the hospital and the staffing firm.)
Lin’s situation is not anomalous: Many workers may find themselves working for one company but inside another, which makes it hard (deliberately so, perhaps) to establish who’s responsible for a safer workplace.
At some point, detaching the work from the workplace might confer a type of power for sector- or companywide organizing. A company like Securitas, for example, probably employs between 10 and 20 percent of the security guards in large U.S. cities. A few companies, including Grubhub and Uber, may soon control most big-city restaurant delivery. That creates an opportunity to fight back against the drive for corporate efficiency that created the fissured workplace in the first place. But first, you have to look past the names on the uniforms and business cards and answer the question: Whom do we really work for?