The Uncertain Hour

 I listen to podcasts every day. I tend to listen to podcasts which are educational and provide me with facts and information. I also particularly enjoy podcasts that talk about economic inequality.

I recently heard an ad on another podcast for a podcast which combined everything I like to see in a podcast. The ad was for "The Uncertain Hour" by Marketplace.

The Uncertain Hour focuses on obscure laws and policies which shape how the world works and explains some of the inequalities we see around us. The show just released its fifth season.

I only listened to season 5. I plan to go back and listen to all of the rest of the seasons, but I was immediately interested in the content of season 5.

Season 5 was all about workers who are non-employees. Independent contractors. Temporary workers ("Temps"). Gig workers. It seems like everyone who works a job should be an employee. It isn't even something I ever questioned before.

It seems like the options are either that you own your own business and so don't really work a job, or you work a job and are an employee of someone else's business. This season goes deep to explain the different ways that companies are getting around employment laws meant to protect workers by categorizing workers as non-employees.

The first three episodes are on the story of Jerry Vasquez. He is a guy who wanted to find work that was flexible. He heard about a company called Jan-Pro. Jan-Pro is a cleaning company which offered people the opportunity to buy their own franchise.

Jerry decided that he liked the idea of owning his own business, and doing so would allow him to do work when it fit into his schedule, unlike a traditional job which imposes its schedule on you. Jerry moved forward with the franchise process.

He had to pay a large franchise fee. He couldn't afford it all at once, so he paid as much as he could, then took a loan for the rest from Jan-Pro. They would let him pay it off over time by keeping some of his cleaning revenue each month until it was paid off.

The franchise offered (but actually insisted) to run the business part of his franchise. They would do his client generation, deal making, book keeping, marketing, and client communication. Basically all aspects of the business would be handled directly by Jan-Pro. All Jerry would do was clean the places they told him to clean.

Jerry attempted to make that situation work, but it turned out that the work they scheduled for him was so cheap and so time consuming that he was making less than minimum wage for his labor. He tried to take the reigns of his own business by telling Jan-Pro they needed to bid more for the jobs and by trying to communicate directly with his clients, but Jan-Pro told him that he would just need to make it work with the way they were already doing things.

They also collected lots of fees from each of his payouts from Jan-Pro (paychecks). Jerry was making less than he would at almost any other job. When he confronted Jan-Pro about how he could be making so little money, they explained that he was not an employee and so was not entitled to minimum wage or employment laws.

He was trapped, because he couldn't just stop, since he still owed them money for the initial franchise fee.

When the podcast team reached out to Jan-Pro, the official company line was that Jan-Pro was a great opportunity for people looking to own businesses, but one former employee shared her true opinions. She explained that it is a scam. It is an exploitative arrangement designed to trick people into working for less than minimum wage.

The show also found that this sort of janitorial franchise system is actually being used by many cleaning companies, not just Jan-Pro.

It is not an accident. It is not an oversight. It is an intentional and exploitative business choice. It is a set of behaviors which should be illegal, but which were specifically designed to be technically legal under the current wordings of the law.

This story was very frustrating to hear because of how much the Jan-Pro company was hurting the already poor and vulnerable people they preyed on. It was disgusting and outrageous, but I was glad that somebody was investigating and reporting on this sort of thing. And I was glad to listen to the reporting so that I was aware it was going on.

The rest of the season talked about other workers which were similarly misclassified as non-employees in a way which was really just about a company being able to pay workers less than minimum wage for their labor.

One industry talked about was chicken farming, and specifically the workers who catch the chickens from the barns and put them in cages on trucks to be taken to the slaughter plants. In the course of talking about that industry, the reporters mentioned that the chicken companies specifically looked for the poorest counties in the United States so that they could set up factories there. They wanted an extremely desperate workforce that wouldn't refuse the jobs no matter how dangerous they were or how little they paid.

There was also some reporting on the new "Gig Economy". They talked about people who worked as Uber drivers and Amazon Flex deliver drivers and how they would regularly make less than minimum wage.

The Uncertain Hour was a really interesting podcast to listen to and I would highly recommend it to anyone else who likes to listen to educational podcasts.

I believe season 1 of the show is about how the cash welfare system works in the United States. And season 2 might be about government regulation. 

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