Tag Archives: Employment

CrowdFlower Lawsuit Could Change Crowd Labor Industry Forever

29 Jul

Should crowd laborers be paid as contractors or employees? According to Christopher Otey, who has launched a lawsuit against crowd labor platform CrowdFlower, the answer is the latter. The results of this suit could carve a huge gash in the face of crowd labor providers, and forever change how the industry functions.

The Rundown

I’ve reported on this case before, back when I was writing for Ziptask, and you can see the full article there. The gist is that CrowdFlower, much like Amazon Mechanical Turk, is a labor platform where workers perform “tasks” for employers and receive payment according to how many they complete. It’s typically not a substantial amount of money;  CrowdFlower’s own CEO has allegedly claimed that its workers are paid far below minimum wage, sometimes as low as $2 an hour.

This does not sit well with Otey, who submits that CrowdFlower’s workers should be classified as employees and receive all the monetary benefits that go with that status. He has launched a lawsuit against the crowd labor provider, and intends to obtain collective and class-action status for it, which would allow other people to join in if they also feel that CrowdFlower has treated them unfairly.

Deciding Factors

I’ve personally spoken to representatives from both sides of this case. On the CrowdFlower side, we have Rich Arnold, the Chief Financial Officer of the company, who claims that Otey’s contributions and relationship with the company are nowhere near the level that would qualify him as an employee. Otey had contributed less than twenty hours of work to CrowdFlower in the two years he worked for the site, and had also done work for many other sites like CrowdFlower. As such, he was not solely dependent on their compensation as his primary source of income. He had also failed to develop the worker/employee relationship that typically defines these arrangements; prior to this suit, Otey had not met and could not name a single person working for CrowdFlower, and no one from the site had ever heard of him, either.

Otey’s representative, labor law attorney Mark Potashnick, approaches the issue with a more big-picture perspective, viewing Otey as a stand-in for the millions of individuals contributing to CrowdFlower. These individuals, he states, do the bulk of CrowdFlower’s work, making the site completely reliant on them. Their contributions are essential to CrowdFlower’s business model, and as such, they are as crucial as any traditional employee would be. He also cites a number of other Ninth Circuit and Fair Labor Standards Act factors that would place Otey and those like him squarely in the “employee” category.

It seems like the primary deciding factor, however, will be the amount of control CrowdFlower has over its contributors while they complete tasks for the site. One of the main sticking points may be how each side defines “control”. Arnold reminds us that by the nature of crowd labor, much of the control is in the hands of the contractor in that they have the ability to decide where and when they work, and on what projects. Whether they’re passing the time completing tasks at Starbucks on their lunch breaks, or completing them at home in their underwear while watching Pulp Fiction, the power is ultimately in the workers’ hands.

Potashnick would rather direct our attention to the rigorous methods CrowdFlower has of vetting their contributors, grading their labor, and assigning high-level tasks. Through the sophisticated infrastructure CrowdFlower has set up, they have all sorts of powers, Potashnick claims, that are not dissimilar to those one would find in a traditional employer. They can track success rates of individual workers to provide feedback, or exclude them from certain jobs altogether if their skills prove unworthy. Again, since the two sides are approaching this topic from very different perspectives, it is difficult to tell which side has more heft to their arguments.

Further complicating matters are recent discovery rulings passed down to CrowdFlower, barring them from further investigating the work history of Otey. The court has ruled that such knowledge is irrelevant to the case, and that the only thing that matters is the relationship between CrowdFlower and Otey.

Endgame: The Fate of an Industry

No matter who wins the suit, crowd labor’s role in the workforce could be forever altered. There are multitudes of sites that operate under a similar structure as CrowdFlower. If it’s found that Otey, and by extension those like him, are employees rather than contractors, the ramifications would be far-reaching.  This ruling would force CrowdFlower to bar its contributors in the U.S. from taking on low-paying tasks. Other companies similar to CrowdFlower may find themselves forced to close up shop rather than face the dramatic restructuring this verdict would require.

On the flip side, if it’s found that Otey and his ilk are indeed contractors, the exact opposite would occur. The precedent set by this case would protect companies similar to CrowdFlower, instead of undermining the very concepts that helped them flourish in the first place.

I found myself at a difficult crossroads when considering which side of this case has more leverage. The fact that the industry will be forever altered, regardless of the verdict, put me in a position where I really had to consider what either side’s victory would represent. A win for the plaintiffs would force some crowd labor sites to restructure and others to cease existing, but would also bring them in line with modern-day U.S. labor laws and perhaps even cement those remaining as a legitimate way to earn a living.

A victory for the defendants, on the other hand, would establish that there is a place in America for this type of labor. I like to think of crowd labor as akin to a snack vending machine; the work is convenient and there when you need it, and anyone can access it, but it’s not really substantial. It’s best used to supplement a main source of income, or as filler when you don’t have one, and I think such a service is unique and useful. Were there a defendant victory, I would love to then see U.S. labor laws restructured to allow such companies to continue comfortably existing.

Either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this case as it continues developing. I just hope I don’t have to watch the industry that I love die a slow, red-tape-swaddled death.

5 Oct

My first article for Ziptask’s blog, Work 3.0! I won’t make a habit of posting my Ziptask stuff here, but this is an exception.

Work 3.0

Don’t get ahead of me.

Freelancers, for many industries, are a fact of life. Media outlets hire them constantly to get fresh perspectives on newsworthy events. Programming development firms often include a revolving door of freelance or third-party programming and QA teams. And many artists subside entirely on freelancing, taking different jobs every few weeks or even every few days. According to this survey from CareerBuilder.com, one in three companies will turn to staffing/recruitment firms and freelancers this year.

But the process of employing freelancers? Sucks. No denying.

At your basest level is the initial act of simply finding a worker you want on your team. You spend money on job ads and spend time posting and responding to offers on Craigslist or LinkedIn or Freelancer or oDesk, hoping against hope to find the one useful name in a pile of thousands. And we haven’t even gotten to the interview…

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Top 5 Ways to Get Paid With Crowdsourcing This Summer

30 May

The summer stretches out before us, dear readers, and if you’re like me you face the delicate problem of being somewhere between “poor” and “bored”. Like most things, crowdsourcing is the answer. To help ease your summer slump, and get a little extra cash in your pocket, I present the top 5 ways crowdsourcing can keep you busy and (relatively) wealthy this summer. I’ve arranged these in order of difficulty, from easy to hard; the suggestions at the top of the list could be accomplished by nearly anyone, but the further down you go, the more drive you’ll need to succeed.

5. Micro Labor

Piles of coins, a crowd, links, and aspects of globalization, all in one photo. Well done, stock image providers.

In a nutshell, virtual sweatshops, minus the sweating because you can work in your underwear. Sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk, ShortTask, and CloudCrowd offer bite-sized bits of work that can typically be completed in less than a minute for anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars. You won’t get rich doing just a couple, but dedicating a few hours a day to it can provide a significant boost to your pay.

4. Favors

Similar to micro labor, except these require a modicum of skill. The idea is that the tasks are less mindless and the pay is a little better, but you may have to work a little harder to find a task that suits you. The idea is to complete tasks that are easy for you, but too much hassle for whoever posted them. Typically, they require passing knowledge in basic skills like writing, web searches, or design. Examples include MyCheapJobs, which puts a price tag on everything from lawn care to acting like a pet dragon; Fiverr asks what you’d be willing to do for $5; and ChaCha is a text-message-based Q&A service that takes volunteers on as “guides”.

3. Contests

If you’ve really got a hand on creativity, and you’re okay with the concept of spec work and non-guaranteed pay, you can clean up with design contests. Businesses everywhere are turning to services like 99designs to crowdsource logos, marketing art, commercials, and more. If you’re an artistic prodigy, winning even one of these contests can leave you sitting pretty with several thousand dollars. Of course, even if you don’t win, they’re a great opportunity to hone your skills and meet other artists. Poptent Media is another platform that offers such contests, and I mentioned a similar campaign spearheaded by Stephen Fry in a previous post.

2. Crowdsourced Job Platforms

Maybe all the uncertainty isn’t for you, and you just want a real-ass job? Crowdsourcing’s got you covered there too. There are several sites, like TweetMyJobs, oDesk, and WorkFu, that provide open-call job applications, or feature matching software to find suitable work. The variety here is both the strength and the weakness of the platform; you’ll have to pore through a great number of job applications, some of them bogus, before you find a good one. But hey, that’s… pretty much like the real world. At least you don’t have to kill trees printing out resumés.

1. Become an Entrepreneur

For the truly driven! The best thing crowdsourcing does is connect people who have needs to the people who can fulfill them. To this end, you have everything you need to start your new business; from finding funding to locating business partners to crowdsourcing your own market research, the ‘Net has your back. If you’ve got a killer idea, and can use a computer, you can start a business. How’s that for a “how I spent my summer” story?

Know a good site for any of these purposes? Is there a source of revenue I didn’t consider? Tell me in the comments, and enjoy your summer! (Those two suggestions not necessarily related)

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