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.

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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.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Emily Dai at [email protected]

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1 COMMENT

  1. I’ll start by noting that I’m not a fan of either Uber or Lyft, most of all relative to their treatment drivers. Still, this op-ed includes a number of inaccuracies:

    “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.”

    The first sentence is accurate. The second one is not, at least in NYC. City leaders passed a minimum wage requirement for rideshare drivers two years ago: they earn a minimum of $17.22/hour in *net* pay, or $27.88/hour before expenses. (That’s admittedly less than ideal, but in practice it’s significantly more than NYC taxi drivers were making even in the pre-Uber days.) Also, the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission, which also regulates the rideshare industry, arranges for healthcare insurance for all drivers who request it, though it needs to be paid out-of-pocket.

    Note that NYC is definitely an anomaly in this area, though it’s one in most other transportation-related areas as well. The large majority of NYC rideshare drivers (~90%) work full-time. The inverse is true nearly everywhere else in North America: only 10%-15% engage in full-time rideshare work. Nearly all such drivers have multiple jobs, and a slight majority nationwide have full-time-salaried jobs elsewhere (and drive for Uber/Lyft mainly on nights & weekends for extra cash), negating their need for benefits from Uber or Lyft. In Uber’s case the disparity is especially stark: only 2% of its California drivers work more than 40 hours/week.

    “They seemed to have made progress toward this goal when a California appeals court ordered Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees.”

    Well, sort of. The California legislature passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) in 2019, which would’ve required nearly all of the state’s independent contractors to be reclassified as employees. The court case you cited was essentially a formality: there was never any realistic chance a judge would effectively overrule a perfectly valid, newly passed bill, and neither Uber nor Lyft had any reasonable arguments to the contrary. Regardless, the passage of Prop 22 rendered the matter moot either way.

    Also, contrary to what’s routinely reported in the media, AB5 is not specific to rideshare & food-delivery apps. The vast majority of people who fall under its aegis have no involvement with app work. The state’s largest employers of independent contractors are in a place many people would never guess: Silicon Valley. Every large tech company has a veritable army of contractors and “permatemps,” though most attempt to escape paying them any benefits by hiring them (at least on paper) through some form of staffing agency. Google has more contractors/permatemps in its California offices than it does salaried employees! While it’s likely stating the obvious that even Google’s lowest-paid contractors earn far more than any gig driver, they nonetheless earn a fraction of what full-time employees make, especially after factoring in stock options, bonuses & various perks (e.g. unlimited vacation time, which is standard among Silicon Valley employers – but only for full-time 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.”

    The problem here is that a sizable majority of California rideshare drivers (75%+) didn’t WANT to be reclassified as employees, in part for the reasons cited above. This stat declined a bit after the pandemic started, but otherwise it’s been pretty consistent among dozens of driver polls dating as far back as 2014 (most performed in a statistically accurate fashion). The other major factor was – and still is – an employment facet basically unique to Uber & Lyft: a driver’s ability to work whenever, wherever, and for however long one wants. (With some limits: in many cities rideshare drivers are prohibited from driving more than 12 hours in any given 24-hour period.)

    Moreover, had Prop 22 failed and Uber & Lyft were forced to reclassify all of their drivers, one of two outcomes would’ve been a certainty: they would’ve terminated the vast majority of its intrastate drivers – in the middle of a pandemic – or exited the California market altogether. While I realize many people are skeptical of the latter claim, both companies have done exactly that on numerous prior occasions. In cases where there’s been no realistic business case for remaining in a market – e.g. passengers broadly balking at paying fares that could’ve easily doubled, effectively rendering it impossible to ever generate profits in it – Uber has already pulled out entirely. And if you’re skeptical that Uber would’ve exited a market as large as California (population 40 million), I’d point out that they exited China (population 1.3 billion) for this reason – but not before losing $2 billion on their investments there. (They’ve also pulled out of Russia. And almost all of Southeast Asia.)

    The California legislature may have been under the impression that a majority of drivers sought reclassification – and they were thus doing the right thing in making it happen (or at least attempting it) – but if so it was a misguided one. Put another way, is it really a “huge loss” if it’s something the large majority didn’t want in the first place? And wouldn’t it have been a far bigger loss if all of California’s roughly 400,000 rideshare drivers found themselves out of a job almost immediately?

    “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.'”

    As it so happens, I have both a law degree and over a decade’s worth of experience as a journalist (though nowadays I mainly do consulting work and don’t actively practice law). I mention this because it’s effectively impossible to get a truly balanced or accurate quote from a PI (personal injury) lawyer who earns a 30% contingency fee each time they wring a financial settlement out of Uber or Lyft (or any other company, for that matter). This is roughly akin to interviewing a fox about its intentions right before it enters the henhouse.

    I agree that crimes against drivers are woefully underreported, and for myriad reasons. That said, the part the attorney interviewed left out is that all Uber & Lyft drivers carry a minimum of $100,000 in personal-injury insurance at all times, which can be used to cover their medical bills in full (in most cases). He also failed to mention that there’s basically no way for Uber or Lyft to know if any given passenger may have violent or racist tendencies, which makes assigning liability to them problematic at the very least.

    Finally, he makes no mention of the reality that violent crimes against rideshare drivers are exceedingly rare. While yes, even a single violent act is unacceptable, Uber & Lyft provided over 250 million rides in 2019 in NYC alone. Even assuming the true number of attacks is 10x the number reported, the odds of a rideshare driver *actually* being attacked are exceptionally low. The for-hire drivers who face the greatest risk of grievous attack are cabbies. Driving a taxi is one of the most dangerous professions in America, and a cabbie is 20 times more likely to be killed on the job than any average American worker. The reason is all too simple: taxi drivers typically carry around large amounts of cash. (Uber & Lyft don’t accept cash fares, period, so their drivers are almost never attacked for this reason.)

    “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.”

    This is a rather sizable generalization. It’s also an extremely thorny area of the law, and it can vary considerably depending on the jurisdiction. As such I’ll merely note that negligence on an employer’s part is often necessary for prevailing in these types of cases; if Uber screwed up and let a convicted murderer drive on their platform, that’d be one thing, but given the extremely thorough background checks they run on all prospective drivers, the overwhelming majority of crimes committed by drivers while on the job are committed by first-time offenders who have clean backgrounds.

    “If a driver is attacked, they should not have to rely on a GoFundMe campaign for proper compensation.”

    I definitely agree with this part. While Uber offers Driver Injury Protection policies in certain states, drivers are forced to pay all premiums for it out-of-pocket. This is wrong, in my opinion: Uber, Lyft, and every other for-hire transport provider should offer company-supplied workers’ comp insurance to all drivers, regardless of employment classification.

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