Rideshare and Delivery Workers Deemed Essential but Companies Insist They are Not Employees. 

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William works full time as a courier for Uber Eats in the Bay Area. Photo by Saskia Hatvany.
Uber cofounder and former CEO Travis Kalanick with driver Muneeb Rehman in 2016. Photo courtesy of Muneeb Rehman. Rehman is the executive director of the #DriversUnite movement.

Muneeb Rehman has been driving for Uber in New York for almost a decade, but the global pandemic has left him and his family struggling to pay the bills.

Rehman tested positive for COVID-19 in early April, shortly after New York’s shelter-in-place order. He believes he contracted the virus from a rider before the shutdown. Now, both he and his wife are faced with health repercussions from the virus and financial instability.

The pandemic has forced many gig workers like Rehman into an impossible choice — give up their source of income, or continue working and risk exposing themselves to the virus. App-based companies like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and Doordash classify their workers as independent contractors, not employees, under the guise that they are an app-based platform focused on technology and “innovation.”

But independent contractor status means that gig workers are not eligible for workplace protections such as the right to minimum wage and overtime, paid sick leave, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance. And for many drivers, leaving the company is not an option.

“The driving profession has been taken over by Uber,” said Rehman. “I can leave right now and work for some other company, but because (Uber) comes up with such cheap offers for the riders, they have most of the work.”

Uber has offered some financial support to its workers — mostly geared towards those who have contracted the virus, but Rehman said when he finally received a check it only covered about a quarter of what he would normally earn while driving for the app. He also has not received any personal protective equipment (PPE), even though Uber promised to distribute tens of millions of masks in early April.

“(Companies) send some disinfectant here, maybe some masks there…but they’re not doing it like they promised. Essential workers are not being provided existential protections in the workplace,” said Edward Escobar, founder of the Alliance for Independent Workers and leader of the #DriversUnite campaign.

Last month, several jurisdictions including the state of New York, the City of Los Angeles and the City of San Francisco, ordered all essential businesses to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers.  Lyft, Uber and Doordash pledged to provide PPE to its workers, but delivery has been spotty and companies blame delays on supply shortages.

But the global pandemic has only exacerbated a longstanding debate: whether gig workers should become employees, or remain independent contractors.

Just a few months ago, California passed Assembly Bill 5, a landmark bill which makes it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors. The law was specifically targeted at apps like Uber, Lyft and Doordash which immediately began lobbying for a ballot measure that would overturn the legislation, and pledged $90 million dollars to get the measure passed in 2020.

On the curtails of the new legislation, Attorney General Javier Becerra announced last week he was suing Uber and Lyft over “allegedly misclassifying hundreds of thousands of drivers, depriving them of worker protections and access to safety net programs.”

“AB 5 has been given a bad rap because corporations are against it, and they are the ones that have been using and abusing the misclassification for their benefit — to make millions if not billions of dollars. Of course they want to keep it the way it is,” said Escobar, adding that many gig workers believe that AB 5 will automatically classify them as employees and take away their freedom — but that is not necessarily the case, he says.

“The problem is is that most of these folks out there are called independent contractors but are treated less than part-time minimum wage employees,” said Escobar. “A majority of gig workers…they are enamored with the concept of an independent contractor, but many of them have never been an independent contractor. They’ve never tasted how sweet it is when you set your own rates, terms and conditions.”

While rideshare drivers are struggling because of the decline in traffic, app-based delivery services are still seeing steady demand. In California, Uber Courrier William received a bundle of personal protective equipment from the company about one month after he was prompted by an automated message. The bundle included five masks, one bottle of disinfectant wipes, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Uber courier William displays the bundle of personal protective equipment he received from Uber. The company sent out emails offering free supplies in early April, but William said he received the package one month after he submitted a request.

Despite the empty streets and good business, William said he has been avoiding working for the app because of the risks he faces when exposing himself to long lines and crowded storefronts.  “It’s really stressful…there is one restaurant in (San Francisco) that I refuse to go to because people don’t social distance there,” he said.

But William says that he is overall pleased with working for the app. “I kind of do get to set my price because I pick and choose the orders that I can take,” he said. “This is how I pay my bills — but I do it because of the freedom that it allows me. At the same time I recognize that I’m younger I don’t have any health problems and I don’t have any kids.”

Escobar says that gig workers don’t necessarily need to become employees to be treated fairly. “We believe both options can exist side by side. They can change their business model, pivot it, relinquish some of the controls let the drivers set their own rates, terms and conditions so they can have independent contractors alongside employees,” he said.

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