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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Airbnb Using "Uber for Temps" to Staff No on Prop. F Campaign

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2015 at 2:24 PM

click to enlarge Anti-Prop. F rhetoric is growing increasingly hyperbolic - COURTESY @EPARILLON/TWITTER
  • Courtesy @eparillon/Twitter
  • Anti-Prop. F rhetoric is growing increasingly hyperbolic

Short-term rental platform Airbnb likes to distinguish itself from Uber. While the ride-hail platform appears to enjoy its asshole reputation (laughing all the way to a $50 billion valuation), Airbnb prefers to talk about community and belonging. Uber smirks; Airbnb smarms. 

But both companies are deeply rooted in the "on-demand economy" ethos of dismantling the way we previously did something (find temporary lodging/hail a cab) and rebuilding a new system with distributed networks of service providers and low institutional overhead and liability. 

So it's perhaps not surprising that Airbnb, which is funding (and staffing) the No on Proposition F campaign to the tune of $8.3 million, is tapping the self-described "Uber for work" — Wonolo — to man the campaign. 

According to campaign finance filings, No on Prop. F paid $10,544 to Wonolo from September 20 to October 17. That money was split up between 45 "campaign workers" who were each paid anywhere from $16 to $762 total. Several of the workers are listed as living as far away as Pinole, Martinez, and San Jose. 

For the uninitiated, Wonolo is a San Francisco-based startup that serves as a "sharing economy" update to the temp agency. Wonolo connects companies with pre-screened workers for short-term gigs. Unlike TaskRabbit, which connects individuals with service providers like dog-walkers and Ikea furniture-assemblers, Wonolo caters to businesses that might need last-minute help in a warehouse, for a catering job, or in retail. 

There's certainly nothing new about campaigns hiring paid canvassers. No on Prop. F has been advertising for canvassing positions on Craigslist for a while, promising $16/hour wages, a minimum of 20 hours of work per week, and the opportunity to "inform, persuade, and activate the local community about what's on the ballot and what it means for them." 

But staffing through Wonolo, or any other on-demand platform, does seem new, and it raises some questions. 

Wonolo is one of the many employment platforms that classifies the workers who use it as independent contractors, an issue of ongoing controversy that is being litigated extensively, most notably in regards to Uber. That means that "Wonoloers" (as the company calls workers who use the platform) are not covered by worker's compensation insurance and must pay self-employment tax, as the company makes clear in its Terms of Service

On its website, Wonolo also stresses that Wonoloers don't work for the third-party employers, either. Under the heading, "Are Wonoloers Your Employees Or Our Employees?" the company states:
Wonoloers are neither your employees nor Wonolo’s employees. The relationship between you and the Wonoloers is that of independent contracting parties. No employment contract of any kind – direct, implied or otherwise – exists between you and the Wonoloers as well as between Wonolo and the Wonoloers.
That might make sense for a distribution company looking for an extra pair of hands, but campaign workers are presumably working under close supervision, especially if they are contacting voters directly. 

Asked about the question of direct or indirect employment in campaigns, veteran San Francisco campaign consultant Jim Ross said that while petition signature gatherers are almost always independent contractors, campaign workers are almost always direct employees. 

"The restrictions around 1099 employers are pretty challenging for campaigns," Ross said by email. "A campaign would set hours, provide materials and direct where canvassers walk. I think any one of those criteria would classify someone an employee."

Ross points out that former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan got into trouble with the IRS for classifying campaign workers as independent contractors. In 1995, SF Weekly reported on a "massive" audit he faced:
Jordan may also face new bills if the IRS determines that he improperly claimed that his 1991 campaign staff were independent contractors. Jordan was the only major mayoral candidate who did not pay withholding taxes on his campaign staff, and the IRS takes a severe view of political committees that seek to avoid taxes by claiming campaign workers are contractors.
Bill Clinton had some trouble of his own along similar lines in 1993. 

Whatever is going on with Airbnb's on-demand campaign staff, we aren't going to find it out from them. 

No on Prop. F spokesman Patrick Hannan declined to respond to questions about the campaign's use of Wonolo and whether workers were being classified as independent contractors, saying only, "We don’t discuss campaign staffing."

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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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