As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged human bodies and economies across the world, millions of app-deployed drivers in the United States—primarily immigrants and subordinated racial minorities—faced a dangerous and perplexing paradox created by law. Simultaneously treated as independent contractors, excluded from economic security, and anointed as “essential workers,” these workers were both celebrated and disproportionately exposed to poverty, disease, and death. This essay makes sense of the legal and lived condition of being essentially dispossessed during this moment. The author argues that this cruel contradiction became possible through a mystification generated by the fragmented nature of work law. Together with obscuring narratives of techno-modernism, seven years of arbitrary legal outcomes made the central legal question (are they employees or independent contractors?) appear unresolvable. Activist-drivers confronted their relegation to being essentially dispossessed by using their situated knowledges about their jobs, work law, and bureaucratic processes to demand economic security through direct actions.

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