A rideshare vehicle. Credit: Eugene E. Kim. License: CC by 2.0.

Attempts to expand U.S. unemployment benefits in the wake of COVID-19 show the pitfalls of a narrow definition of employment. International human rights treaties, in contrast, provide a more expansive approach, one that could provide assistance to a population of workers that has experienced increased difficulty obtaining relief for lost work.  

The pandemic has caused unemployment on a massive scale. Workers who live paycheck to paycheck are especially hard hit and face an uphill battle to pay for basic necessities. In response, the U.S. government has expanded its unemployment assistance programs, but many non-traditional workers may encounter challenges when trying to claim these benefits. 

According to the New York Times, gig workers like rideshare drivers struggle to claim the benefits they are owed. U.S. states, which manage unemployment payments, have not had the infrastructure in place to handle such claims, meaning gig workers across the country have had to wait longer than others before receiving assistance. 

These delays in assistance are further complicated by a confusion over who qualifies for unemployment relief. Much has been written about gig workers falling outside of traditional employment models. Uber drivers, for example, can choose when or if they want to work. However, the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated a paradox: With stay-at-home orders and efforts to maintain social distance in the U.S. and around the world, few people are venturing outside and requiring rides, making Uber drivers effectively unemployed, even if they lack the traditional pink slip. 

Critics have noted that the U.S. government’s guidance regarding new unemployment packages seemed to leave out gig workers entirely, despite the fact that gig workers form a large part of the U.S. economy. A survey conducted in 2018 showed that nearly one in four Americans over the age of 18 earned money from gig work. These workers are more likely to be under the age of 34, and include higher percentages of Hispanic and African-American adults. Because gig workers are such an important part of the U.S. economy, government efforts to aid unemployed workers cannot have real meaning without including them. 

In this respect, the framework provided by international human rights treaties is particularly timely. Unemployment benefit systems that define employment narrowly may still be the norm in many countries, but international human rights standards do not distinguish between traditional workers (such as factory workers) and nontraditional workers (like rideshare drivers). Under these standards, even if gig workers don’t check off every box needed to qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, they are entitled to governmental assistance on an equal basis as others. 

For example, the international human rights treaty on economic, social, and cultural rights –– which guarantees rights to food and housing –– recognizes everyone’s right to available government assistance (in the form of money or other benefits) that allows them to maintain a basic standard of living. Leaving gig workers in limbo as to whether or not they will be provided with the benefits many so desperately need likely fails this standard.  

In addition to social support, the treaty also recognizes the right to safe working conditions. Workers who are compelled to seek out employment that increases one’s risk of contracting the virus puts that right in jeopardy. 

This is a challenging time for all workers, and even more so for those who fall through government safety nets. The United States — and countries around the world —should look to international human rights standards as inspiration to expand those safety nets, including by providing benefits for all workers, not just those in traditional forms of employment. 

This is one in a series of blog posts authored by International Human Rights Clinic students who have focused on workers’ rights during the pandemic. View the introduction to the series here.