'Dashers,' 'Taskers' and Other Euphemisms Obscure Real Losses for Gig Workers

A Lyft and Uber driver fiddles with his smartphone as he prepares to pick up a customer on Aug. 31, 2015. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

“Rideshare drivers,” “dashers,” “taskers,” “driver partners,” “entrepreneurs," “earners”: There's a long list of euphemisms for low-wage service workers in the U.S. today.

The "cute" monikers don't just constitute a clever strategy by the public relations departments at companies like Uber and Lyft. These firms have made billions by calling their workers contractors, thereby denying them basic employee protections and benefits.

While so-called gig companies are best known for the practice these days, American companies have been making up names for low-wage workers for decades. Since the 1970s, managers and executives have created increasingly elaborate titles for workers at the same time they have weakened benefits, held wages stagnant, undermined unions and replaced full-time positions with part-time contract work. Here's a three-hour radio documentary about how they did all that.

A long history

In 1975, Walmart CEO Sam Walton decided the people staffing his stores would henceforth be called “associates.”

Today, Subway employees are called “sandwich artists.” Taco Bell cashiers, “champions.” Amazon workers, ”Amazonians.” At Disney World, managers call everyone from the janitor to the person inside the Mickey Mouse costume a “cast member.”

Say hello to a “cast member” at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
Say hello to a “cast member” at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. (Photo by Derek Lee/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images)

“They conjure a kind of egalitarian, creative, nurturing, healthy workplace — where in almost every case in this country, what you really have is a hierarchical, routine, dull, indifferent, and more and more these days, a toxic and unhealthy workplace,” said John Patrick Leary, author of “Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.”

Leary adds these titles aren’t just about trying to make workers feel better about their jobs, but consumers, too. The names puts a positive gloss on low-wage labor for customers who might feel guilty being served by people working jobs for little pay or satisfaction.

Leary says terms like “associate” or “sandwich artist” are so absurd they are disorienting and block critique. “It can make you feel kind of crazy sometimes,” he said. “Like, ‘Am I the only person who thinks calling the person who checks you out at Target an associate is kind of ridiculous given their place in the Target hierarchy?’ It’s part of this saturation of dishonesty and lies that you are surrounded by that can make you feel a little bit overwhelmed.”

Gig companies like Uber and DoorDash have taken the titling of workers to a new level. Almost every company comes up with a particular name for workers, and typically, the term mirrors the company name. People doing tasks for TaskRabbit are called “taskers.” People delivering food for DoorDash are called “dashers.” People gathering up and recharging e-scooters for Lime are called “juicers.”

A new economic model

Unlike the “champions” of Taco Bell, or “cast members” of Disney, executives at DoorDash, Uber and the like also claim that their workers are not employees at all, but independent business owners the company is just connecting to clients through an online platform.

Labor lawyer Caitlin Vega said these invented names help bolster this argument. "They [the gig companies] invented these terms to describe the work that they do that I think is meant to capture both that you should be loyal to the company, and yet we don’t owe you anything,” she said.

Many of the invented terms at gig companies obscure the labor of workers in a more drastic way than the aggrandizing titles given to employees at companies like Target and Walmart.

Sponsored

Back in 2013, the marketing team at Lyft pushed this rebranding of work to the extreme. In advertisements, cheery narrators told consumers that Lyft drivers were “your friend with a car.” Customers were encouraged to sit in the front seat and fist-bump drivers.

Early Uber marketing material promised drivers they could own their own businesses and work without a boss. In fliers and ads, the company boasted about creating more than 100,000 “entrepreneurs.” The company then adopted the term “driver partners.” Most recently, Uber managers and PR people have been calling workers “earners.”

These invented terms have legal and economic significance. In 2013, lawyers and executives at Uber and Lyft were able to get the California Public Utilities Commission to write into law an entirely new regulatory category for their business: transportation network companies, or TNCs. This allowed TNCs to steer clear of local taxi and transportation laws, as well as laws governing TNC drivers.

This was part of the whole “sharing economy” trend that journalists and politicians helped invent and inflate in the early days of Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. Neither “rideshare” nor “sharing economy” has ever made any sense if you take into account any dictionary definition of the word sharing. Nevertheless, the term rideshare is still in use today. Here’s a whole essay on the complicity of tech media, if you're curious.

California’s Supreme Court, attorney general and Legislature agree there’s one accurate term for gig workers: employees, a term that guarantees benefits and protections. But gig companies spent more than $200 million on Proposition 22, which legalized a new sub-employee category. It comes with limited benefits, but the company still controls how the workers work and how they get paid.

While Sam Walton at Walmart helped mainstream fancy titles for low-paid employees, executives at gig companies like Lyft and Instacart have succeeded in passing labor laws that created a whole new legally defined sub-employee class for their workers. The new term for this sub-employee category? “Independent contractor plus.”