The coronavirus pandemic has thrown every American into a state of emergency — if not in the immediate medical or financial sense then in the indirect economic one, as joblessness skyrockets to record highs. Freelancers typing away at home and gig workers risking exposure out in the field have felt the strain more harshly than most, with many left in a no man’s land between diminished rates of incoming work and ineligibility for unemployment benefits.
Enter the CARES Act, sweeping new legislation designed in part to toss a life raft in the direction of the gig economy. The bill’s most eye-catching stipulation involves a $600-per-week stimulus accessible to anyone dealing with professional hardship, on top of unemployment benefits specified by their individual states.
It’s a huge boon to those in need, and it’s been pilloried by the bootstrap-pullers of the world as mollycoddling. But the age-old narrative of handouts breeding a poor work ethic has received a sorely needed rejoinder in one of the films recently released to the American public via the new “virtual cinema” system. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You has finally been made available in the US following a world premiere at Cannes last year, a run in its native Britain, and a scuttled theatrical release in the US. And it arrives on our shores not a moment too soon, putting a human face on the talking points of the gig economy debate. By looking closer at one struggling family in the working-class Newcastle region, Loach exposes the human stakes of our identical crisis across the Atlantic.
The film has come to American viewers at a pivotal time for gig economy workers, acting as a meticulous beat-by-beat walkthrough of the injustices they face on the job. The number of real-world people coping with the same unenviable situation depicted onscreen continues to grow, and they get a sympathetic surrogate in Loach’s protagonist. His many tribulations lay bare just how dire making ends meet can be when working for the likes of companies like Amazon, Instacart, and others that rely on contract employees who aren’t entitled to the same benefits or protections as full-time ones.
Sorry We Missed You puts a human face on the hardships of gig economy work
We learn early on in Sorry We Missed You that the Turner clan — workhorse Ricky (Kris Hitchen), supportive wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) and moppet 11-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) — has been living lean since the financial downturn of 2007-2008. In the job interview that opens the film, Ricky articulates the salient points of his circumstances and personality, both of which sound lamentably familiar to any news-reading American: He believes in the virtue of labor, taking pride in never accepting government assistance. Having spent most of his life as a landscaper, he can no longer keep up with the backbreaking physical strain as he gets older. He figures that a contract job driving for Parcels Delivered Fast! — a package delivery service all but named Schmamazon — would be a good career pivot. Eager for an opportunity to be his own boss and make some real money, he’s ruled an ideal candidate and hired on the spot.
Except he’s not “hired,” he’s “onboarded.” Loach raises the first red flag about three exchanges into Ricky’s orientation, when his supervisor starts using pointed, loaded language. He makes the crucial distinction that Ricky will not work “for” PDF, but “with” them. Ricky doesn’t earn wages; he’s instead charging PDF fees. He’s not an employee — he’s a one-man franchise. The jargon makes normal old servitude sound fresh and new. “Master of your own destiny,” growls PDF overseer Maloney (Ross Brewster). “Sloughs the fuckin’ losers from the warriors.” Ricky cannot afford to let this unsettling messaging give him pause, and he takes the job.
He learns all too soon that these words contain traps into which he’s already fallen. Every aspect of PDF’s corporate doctrine shifts responsibility from the company to the individual, forming a parallel with the New York Times’ blockbuster 2019 exposé on Amazon’s business practices. That story began with the shocking case study of an overtaxed driver who caused a child’s death in an on-the-job car crash, only to find herself solely liable for any legal recompense while Amazon shrugged its shoulders. Ricky finds himself holding the bill again and again in the same fashion, albeit for less extreme incidents, his first being a parking ticket that comes out of his pay. His every misstep ends with him kicking money back to the people paying him, whether those missteps involve the slightest delay in razor-thin one-hour delivery windows or his vehicle itself.
The matter of transportation first introduces the grim domino effect through which Sorry We Missed You traces Ricky’s decline. Like all of Amazon’s “delivery service partners,” he must provide his own up-to-code van to haul the day’s packages, and a PDF representative presents him with the options to rent or buy one from the company. (Though the script never directly invokes the A-word, the one-to-one comparisons leave little to the imagination.) He rightly reasons that he’ll gain more in the long run by buying, but like many members of his socioeconomic strata, he has to make sacrifices to scrounge up the cost. His family agrees to sell their own car, leaving Abbie to take the bus to the houses of the patients she cares for as a home nurse. Her mobility issues make fulfilling her duties at her own job more complicated, while Ricky can barely finish his daily list of deliveries. Their day-to-day difficulties keep compounding.
In the Turners’ two-pronged battle to remain solvent, Loach does what a news report can’t by vividly rendering the emotional and psychological ramifications of their inhumane working conditions. Both Abbie and Ricky cherish the face-to-face element of their occupations; an early scene illustrates her tender bedside manner with her patients, while Ricky mentions in his initial interview with PDF that meeting new people was his favorite aspect of his old nine-to-five. He fancies himself something of the jolly neighborhood mailman, chatting up the recipients of his assorted packages. Maloney sets him straight at the end of his first day, telling him that he’ll never make all his dropoffs unless he briskly moves from one house to the next. The mounting demands of Ricky and Abbie’s work leave them no time for the pleasantries that make any job survivable.
The trouble follows them home as well, where Ricky and Abbie’s forced workaholic schedules take a toll on their kids. With a lack of parental guidance and no exemplar of an adult life worth pursuing, Seb acts out and runs afoul of the local cops. Ricky’s constant exhaustion makes him edgy at the dinner table and greatly exacerbates the inevitable fights with his son, which culminate in a smack that only sends Seb out to cause more havoc. In the film’s most heartrending moment, Liza Jane hides her father’s keys so he’ll have no choice but to spend a little more time with them. Loach painstakingly shows that the companies enforcing these overtaxing standards have a holistic negative effect on the individual, indirectly making every part of their life more stressful. Ricky’s job wears on the whole family, even if they’re not personally clocking in.
Sorry We Missed You — titled for the phrase of hollow politeness printed on the slips that PDF sticks on absent customers’ doors — rejects any resolution for Ricky’s ever-increasing debt to the corporation utterly disinterested in the obstacles it’s deliberately laid for him. A rough mugging results in fines for lost parcels, fines for missing deliveries, and then one last fine for the scanner his assailants smash, totaling upward of one thousand pounds. He can only return to work and get back on the hamster wheel that goes nowhere.
The film positions itself in a hot-button debate that concerns all Americans
Ricky and the thousands of real people living his nightmare generally exist in the abstract for the pundits and commentators weighing what their fate ought to be. When the CARES Act was detailed, think-tank types wasted no time doing the math on whether the benefits would be paltry enough to keep the working class motivated. This ideological bloc posits that providing too much assistance makes unemployment a more appealing prospect than work, somehow seeing that scenario as proof that aid is too great and not that wages are too low. Loach’s film does the work of putting their theories into practice, showing how policy decisions made in isolation ripple out into tragedy once they’re enacted.
In an op-ed at The Hill published in March, economist and Trump campaign adviser Stephen Moore and conservative super PAC official Phil Kerpen restated the right’s favored criticisms of public aid programs. From the opening salvo that “public policies should reward productive behavior rather than punish it,” they denigrated the proposed $2 trillion relief stimulus as a possible “back door scheme by Democrats to greatly raise the minimum wage.” A report from CNBC painted a decidedly different picture, raising the point that “often in a downturn, clients delay paying freelancers for work already done, leaving them with little or no income for extended periods of time.”
CNBC cited Freelancers Union executive director Rafael Espinal as declaring the CARES Act “an amazing win” for gig economy workers and freelancers heretofore uncovered. Sorry We Missed You fits squarely into the argument he’s making, using the mechanisms of narrative to carry it out to its logical conclusion. Loach shows the dark failure of public aid, what happens when the people a government should be caring for fall through the cracks.
Loach’s film was made in a pre-coronavirus world, but recent developments have only served to underscore the points he makes. Ricky lives from check to precarious check, an existence known all too well to freelancers, including this one. And like the average pen for hire, he discovers that putting in the work won’t necessarily free him from a Kafkaesque maze of small-print doublespeak and Catch-22s. He’s playing a losing game, one that CARES makes somewhat more winnable. But that doesn’t change the fact that everyone working is still playing, and even if we may have better odds, the house always wins.