Make ride-share drivers employees

Last week, a Lyft driver was viciously attacked by two passengers while carrying out a ride in Queens. The persistent cases of violence against ride-hailing drivers highlights a larger issue of contractor-based business models.


Emily Dai, Opinion Editor

On March 16, Lyft driver Ashish Sapkota was attacked by two passengers in Queens. What began as an ordinary ride quickly derailed when the passengers began fighting in the backseat. When Sapkota told the passengers to stop, they punched him several times in the face. While Sapkota wonders whether his race played a role in the attack, given the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans, this incident also illuminates a separate issue — how ride-hailing companies exploit contract workers.

The attack on Sapkota is only the most recent assault against drivers for ride-hailing companies. Around 80,000 drivers in the ride-hailing industry work in New York City. Of those drivers, one 26-year-old had his car damaged and had a gun and a knife pulled on him before being robbed by two passengers in Midtown at the beginning of the month. Eduardo Madiedo was savagely beaten by a Lyft passenger he had picked up in Queens. Uber driver Mohammed Al-Gahaffi was put into a coma for three weeks after being attacked by a passenger on the Upper East Side. 

These attacks don’t even begin to approximate the true number of drivers that are actually being assaulted. Bryant Greening, the co-founder of law firm LegalRideshare, stated, “Crimes against ride-share drivers are grossly underreported. We get calls every day from drivers who have been victimized by passengers. It’s much more common than anybody really understands.”

These incidents are emblematic of a larger issue with the way ride-sharing companies treat their employees. Currently, drivers for large companies such as Uber and Lyft are all independent contractors. This means that these drivers are not given the legal rights guaranteed to employees, including minimum wage, health care and unemployment insurance.

Drivers have pushed for employee status for years. They seemed to have made progress toward this goal when a California appeals court ordered Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees. This optimism was short-lived when drivers suffered a huge loss when the majority of California residents voted to continue letting ride-hailing companies classify their drivers as independent contractors. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash were, in fact, so against the idea of having their drivers be protected under labor laws that they spent more than $200 million promoting Proposition 22. 

Not only does this business model harm drivers, it harms the passengers as well. Since ride-hailing platforms consider independent contractors “outside the scope of the employment relationship,” these companies aren’t held to the same standards in regards to employer liability for civil claims. For example, if an Uber or Lyft driver assaulted or harassed their passenger, their respective company would not be liable. Since 2014, there have been at least 30 cases filed against Uber for drivers assaulting passengers. If drivers were treated as employees, victims of reported rapes, murders, accidents and assaults would have a stronger case in court to hold them accountable for damages. 

Without employee protections, drivers are susceptible to passenger attacks with little support from their respective companies. Recently, a video of San Francisco Uber driver Subhakar Khadka being coughed on and assaulted went viral, causing swift online backlash. While Uber reportedly banned the assailant from using their app, the company only gave Khadaka $120 to compensate for the ordeal. Cyan Banister, an early investor of Uber, said in the description of a GoFundMe page she created for Kadkha that the money “does not come close to the expenses needed to have a professional car detailing to try and remove the strong chemicals of pepper spray and also the lost wages from not being able to work.” It was only through the GoFundMe page that he was able to raise over $100,000 as compensation.

Yesterday, Sapkota reported that the attack deeply affected him, and that he was out of work and too afraid to get back on the road. Other drivers who had been assaulted have expressed similar reluctance to keep working. One driver reported that he “never felt safe driving for Uber.” This lack of company support is simply unacceptable. If a driver is attacked, they should not have to rely on a GoFundMe campaign for proper compensation. At their respective peaks in March 2019 and February 2020, over 550,000 New Yorkers were using Uber and over 184,000 were using Lyft in a single day. As long as these companies continue to exploit the current gig economy, both their drivers and customers are less safe than they should be.

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Email Emily Dai at [email protected]