ProPublica digs into the gig economy pyramid scheme that sells work-from-home customer service reps

Arise describes itself as "customer service outsourcing redefined." What that really means is: Uber for corporate phone support, except it pre-dates Uber. Arise contractors—note "contractors," not "employees," which will be an important distinction—provide customer service for companies like Disney and AAA.

But the people doing this work—almost 90 percent of whom are women, and nearly 2/3 of whom are people of color—must first buy their own hardware and internet connection to work from home (not unlike providing your own car for Uber), then must endure hours of unpaid "training." Once they're setup and ready to go, they're still at risk of being constantly surveilled. "This call may be monitored to ensure quality assurance," right? Here's how one worker described her experience to ProPublica:

After paying about $1,500 for home office equipment: a computer, two headsets and a phone line dedicated to Arise; after paying Arise to run a check on her background; after passing Arise's voice-assessment test and signing Arise's nondisclosure form; after paying for and passing Arise's introductory training, to which she devoted three days, unpaid; after paying for and passing a certification course to provide customer service for Arise client AT&T, to which she devoted 44 unpaid days; after then being informed she had to get more training yet — an additional 10 days, for which she was told she would be paid, but wasn't; and then, after finally getting a chance to sign up for hours and do work for which she would be paid (except for her time spent waiting for technical support, or researching customer issues, or huddling with supervisors), Tami Pendergraft spent three weeks fielding telephone calls from AT&T customers, after which she received a single paycheck.

For $96.12.

(This, BTW, is what is actually meant by the term "emotional labor." Not listening to your friend's complaints; it literally means the people, mostly women and people of color, whose service labor often involves appeasing other peoples' emotions at the expense of their own.)

Arise sounds like a pretty gross setup. But it continues to thrive, even after the Department of Labor decided they had scammed some 20,000 workers out of tens of millions of dollars. From ProPublica:

Arise trained the agents and exercised extraordinary control over their work. But it treated them as independent contractors rather than employees. That meant the agents weren't entitled to minimum wage, overtime or other employment protections. They paid for their own training and equipment, and even had fees deducted from each paycheck for use of Arise's technology platform.

The Labor Department investigator concluded that the company was violating federal law and cheating its workforce. The agents, no matter what Arise called them, were functioning as employees and should be paid and protected accordingly, the labor department found.

The investigator estimated that over two years, Arise had shortchanged its network of agents by $14.2 million.


The Arise lawyers "politely disagreed" with the department's findings, according to a report written by the investigator and obtained by ProPublica through a public records request. Arise refused to change its practices. It also refused to pay any back wages.

And…that's it. Arise just said, "Nah, we're cool." The Department of Labor made a note in its database that the company refused to comply, and then everyone just went about their business.

All a Gig-Economy Pioneer Had to Do Was "Politely Disagree" It Was Violating Federal Law and the Labor Department Walked Away [Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott and Ariana Tobin / ProPublica]

Meet the Customer Service Reps for Disney and Airbnb Who Have to Pay to Talk to You [Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott and Ariana Tobin / ProPublica]

Image: Public Domain via NeedPix