Prof. David Weil, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, testified on Oct. 23 before the United States House of Representatives in a joint subcommittee hearing on “The Future of Work: Preserving Worker Protections in the Modern Economy.”

Weil led the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor from 2014 until 2017 under former President Barack Obama. According to Weil’s faculty profile, his areas of expertise include employment and labor market policy and “the impacts of industry restructuring on employment and work outcomes and business performance.”

The Subcommittee on Health, Labor, Employment and Pensions and the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections heard the testimonies. Chairwoman Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL) said during her opening statement that the Oct. 23 hearing would be the first of three hearings exploring “the ‘future of work,’” and that the hearings would allow experts and stakeholders to discuss how “evolving business models and rapidly changing employment arrangements, coupled with increased use of technology and automation, are impacting workers and employers.” The Oct. 23 hearing focused on how Congress could “ensure that workers have fair wages, hours and benefits; safe workplaces; and an opportunity to bargain for better working conditions at a time when American workplaces are rapidly shifting,” Chairwoman Wilson said. 

During his testimony, which can be found on the House Education and Labor Committee’s  website, Weil said that there have been many conferences, workshops and meetings over the years to discuss the “future of work,” but those meetings primarily focused on issues such as “robotics, artificial intelligence, and platform business models like Uber and Lyft.” Those topics concerning the future of work affect a small portion of the workforce, and predictions on the impacts of technology have largely been incorrect, Weil said. 

Focusing on changes impacting the present workforce would be more useful, especially for employers moving away from the “traditional employment model and outsourcing and subcontracting much of their work,” Weil explained. He described this change in the current and future structures of work as a “fissured workplace.” The term encompasses “increased outsourcing, contracting and subcontracting, franchising in its many forms, and most recently platform business models,” he said.

Weil said that the “increase of fissured work arrangements and increasing misclassification of workers as independent contractors” will lead to an increase in people working “without the protections of our fundamental labor and employment laws and without the ability to access important social safety net benefits.” Workplace fissuring can also negatively impact worker health and safety because “having multiple parties with unclear responsibilities for health and safety can create a work environment where the likelihood of injuries or fatalities increases,” Weil explained. 

The effects of subcontracting were seen in the mid-2000s with the increased usage of cell phones that led to the rapid expansion of cell tower networks. To keep up with the demand, companies like Verizon and AT&T relied on “a highly subcontracted system to undertake that work,” Weil said. During this period, the fatality rate among cell tower workers was “three times that facing underground coal miners,” he continued.

According to Weil, a fissured workplace and the misclassification of workers can also “significantly impact low-wage workers, people of color, immigrants and undocumented workers.” This will “compound the historic and systemic inequities that prevented many women and people of color from being protected by standard labor protections under the Fair Labor Standard Act and the National Labor Relations Act,” Weil explained. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act is a federal law that “establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The National Labor Relations Act is a federal law that protects “the rights of employees and employers, … encourage[s] collective bargaining, and … curtail[s] certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy,” according to the National Labor Relations Board website.

Weil estimates that 19% of the private sector workforce, or 23 million people, are in industries where fissured arrangements dominate. However, this estimate is conservative, and if the number of workers in occupations and industries with “mixed partial presence of fissured practices,” were added to the 23 million workers previously noted, that number could double, Weil said.

Weil concluded his testimony by saying that the consequences of fissured workplaces are not a result of forces beyond control, but that “they arise from deliberate choices made by businesses and organizations.” Weil said that new technologies will also change the dynamics of business as they have in the past, but that workplace policies should still balance financial goals with protections and considerations of fairness.