Imagine that the company you work for charged you a fee—$10, $20, or even $40—every time you showed up late for work, left an hour early, or called in sick. Professional cleaners working for Handy, a cleaning and handyman service, don’t have to imagine this scenario: They are living it.
These cleaners do not technically work for Handy, as they are classified as independent contractors—“Handy Pros”, in the company’s idiom—and ostensibly use the company’s platform as a service that gives them access to clients, thereby enabling them to grow their own businesses. But while conducting ethnographic research on app-based cleaning work in New York City, as part of a five-year study funded by the European Research Council, I learned the extent to which Handy still influences its Pros’ behavior. While recent research has usefully shown how gig economy companies nudge workers toward preferred modes of conduct by mobilizing some type of “carrot”—incentives used to encourage behaviors like working during busy times or logging a certain number of hours—many of the 19 Handy Pros who I interviewed for my research were more deeply affected by Handy’s frequent use of the “stick”, in the form of an elaborate system of fees like those mentioned above (an impact that was also described in a recent report from Data & Society).
These fees—levied for a variety of “offenses” like leaving a job early or arriving to a job late—in some cases kept some Pros tied to the platform by creating a situation of debt bondage in which they spend periods of time working solely to pay off their debt to the company, which deducts all outstanding fees from their earnings. By most accounts, the fees are easy to incur, can be hard to avoid, and seriously destabilize the income stream these cleaners are trying to establish and maintain.
The first fee all Handy Pros are required to pay is a “background check fee” deducted from her or his first wages. Most other fees serve a disciplinary, punitive function. Currently, the company charges the following disciplinary fees to cleaners:
- Cancellation fee: In the US and Canada, Handy charges a $10 fee when a Pro cancels between 24 and 48 hours before the scheduled job, a $20 fee when the cancellation is between four and 24 hours beforehand, and a $40 fee when the Pro cancels four hours or less in advance. These fees are, according to the company, intended to avoid “last-minute” cancellations that “erode customer trust and prevent other professionals from claiming the job.”
- Missed job fee: If a Pro does not show up at all, without giving notice, he or she is charged $50. This fee is meant to underscore the fact that “Handy has a very low tolerance for missing jobs.” If a Pro misses another job within 28 days, he or she will be permanently deactivated from the platform.
- Late arrival fee: Since late arrival “causes customer displeasure,” Handy charges Pros a $15 late arrival fee when they show up past the scheduled start time of a job without “promptly communicating with the customer.” What exactly counts as late arrival (five minutes? 10? 20?) Handy does not make clear on its website. It does make clear that Pros are expected to wait around for 30 minutes in case the customer is “just running late”.
- Early departure fee: Handy informs its Pros that if they leave a job “before completing the entire service, and without the customer’s explicit approval,” they will be charged a $15 early departure fee.
- Referral fee: If Pros offer their services to customers outside the platform, they will be charged a referral fee of $100. This fee is thus expressly intended to push back against platform disintermediation. Instead of taking customers “off the platform,” Pros are advised to ask a customer to add them to their “Pro Team,” which is composed of their favorite cleaners.
Handy’s customers are similarly charged fees for rescheduling on short notice (they pay the full cost of the job if canceling on short notice), and Handy uses these fees to compensate cleaners for their lost income opportunity.
How cleaners experience disciplinary fees
When I asked cleaners how they experience and deal with these fees, a number of themes recurrently surfaced. First, I was struck by the pervasiveness of fees in the working lives of Handy Pros: most of the people I interviewed acknowledged—often rather casually—that fees were part of “doing business” via the Handy platform and were incurred regularly. In general, most Pros agreed that Handy is entitled to charge them, because it enables the company to secure the quality of its product. If Handy didn’t do this, a majority argued, cleaners wouldn’t be held accountable for their mishaps and errant behavior, and the company would quickly lose customers, which would subsequently reduce cleaners’ job and income opportunities. Fees, according to this logic, are ultimately beneficial to all sides of the platform-mediated marketplace. Nevertheless, the cleaners I interviewed did have common gripes with particular fees and the criteria used to charge them.
A number of cleaners said, for instance, that it was not always fully clear to all parties involved what finishing “the entire service” meant (though Handy includes a list on its website). Some said they’d finished their tasks early, but were hesitant to leave the job because they did not want to incur an early departure fee. When they would ask the customer for their permission to leave earlier, they were often confronted with requests for additional tasks. Such “extras,” for example, cleaning windows or inside of an oven, are supposed to be added and paid for by the customer through the app, but not every cleaner felt comfortable explaining this because they did not want to “be difficult” and run the risk of receiving a poor rating and/or a negative review. Some therefore acquiesced and performed the extras for no additional compensation, while others did speak up and explained that such extras cost money. At these moments it became clear to these Pros that not every customer has a clear understanding of the parameters of a job they requested, partly because they are not required to provide detailed information about their home or the tasks that need to be completed. As a result, what constitutes the completion of “the entire service” often remains a matter of dispute—a dispute in which Pros have significantly less bargaining power because of their vulnerability to reputation damage on the platform.
With respect to the late arrival fee, most cleaners agreed that being late for a job every now and then is virtually unavoidable, given that they typically use public transportation to get to their jobs, and this frequently involves dealing with delays. Of course, most cleaners told me they take these delays into account and try to arrive at a job early, but it’s easy to be a little late—especially when they do consecutive jobs. Handy instructs its Pros to contact the customer through the app in order to avoid fees, but this is not always possible when you’re in a subway tunnel without reception. Interestingly, some cleaners claimed to barely notice late arrival fees, because they are “only” $15 and are automatically subtracted from their payments.
The cancellation fees are perhaps the most contentious. Not only are they among the highest fees Handy charges its Pros, but many cleaners find them frustrating and unfair. Cleaners have no way to reschedule with a customer if, for whatever valid reason, they cannot make it to a job. A Handy Pro is only able to contact a new customer four hours in advance of the job and is solely allowed to communicate through the app. In other words, if a Pro is faced with a family emergency (several cleaners told me about accidents and family members suddenly being hospitalized) that occurs between 48 and four hours before a new job, he or she is forced to cancel the job and incur a fee because there is no way to reach out to the customer. But even when Pros are able to contact their customer, a few hours in advance, Handy’s system still does not allow them to reschedule without first cancelling the job, so either the customer or the Pro needs to move ahead with the cancellation and will thereby incur a fee.
For some cleaners I interviewed, all these fees added up over time. One veteran Handy Pro had been going through a very difficult period in her personal life, forcing her to cancel many of the jobs she had previously claimed (and kept claiming, because she intended to pick herself and her work back up again so she could pay her bills). This led her to incur a large number of fees that indebted her to Handy for an astonishing amount of over $1,000. She said that at no point in time did Handy contact her about the situation, and neither did the company deactivate her account, instead allowing the debt to accumulate. Despite taking a break from the platform and finding work elsewhere, she remains determined to stick with Handy and pay off her remaining debt so she can eventually start making money again (all of her recent Handy jobs have merely paid off small parts of her debt). When I asked her why she does not just quit Handy by deleting her account, she answered that she wasn’t sure what the company would do to make her pay off her debt—would they go so far as to sue her? But beside these doubts, she just really wanted to “hold on to Handy,” because it had been a reliable source of income over the years, and leaving the platform would mean relinquishing future income opportunities. Even though she had other gigs and she was thinking about opening up her own business, the thought of not having Handy around unsettled her. She was afraid to cut off the hand that promises to feed, even when all it had done recently is take her earnings.
Debt in the workplace
While the above example is certainly exceptional in terms of the amount of fees this Pro accumulated over time, other cleaners I interviewed had similarly spent periods doing jobs without getting paid because all the money earned was automatically subtracted from their remaining debt to Handy. Taken together, their narratives disclose the impact of Handy’s decision to use punitive instruments as a way to regulate the conduct of its Pros, who are allegedly free from constraint or control and are therefore classified as independent contractors.
A Handy spokesperson responded to a Quartz request for comment on its fees, but did not provide one.
By enforcing contractual relations that use debt as a mechanism to bind a segment of its workforce to its platform, I believe Handy effectively updates a system of debt peonage whose terms and conditions it can modify unilaterally, suddenly, and without any substantive form of appeal—save for private arbitration. As we continue to debate and reflect on the pros and cons of app-based gig work, we should remember that practices like these would be unacceptable in any regular workplace. The problem, of course, is that what can be called “regular” or “normal” in today’s world of work is itself increasingly up for debate. To riff off the rock band Manic Street Preachers: if you tolerate this, then your job could be next.
Niels van Doorn is an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam.