Friday October 21, 2022
by Max Nesterak
Uber and Lyft driver Abdillahi Mahamed Abdi (right) points to his shirt stained from blood from when a passenger assaulted him. Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, (left) interprets for him.
Whipsawed by shrinking fares and rising costs, Uber and Lyft drivers are pressing lawmakers to force the companies to address their long-standing complaints of meager wages, unsafe working conditions and a lack of transparency.
Drivers say the companies continue to gobble up more of each fare — more than 60% by their estimates — even as they bear the burden of rising prices for gas, cars and insurance. Drivers also complain the companies have unfairly terminated drivers and done little to protect them from dangerous passengers.
“Drivers are at a breaking point,” said Eid Ali, president of the newly formed Minnesota Uber/Lyft Driver Association, during a Thursday news conference at the state Capitol.
The drivers were joined by supportive Democratic lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. She praised President Joe Biden for his Labor Department’s proposed new rule that would extend federal worker protections to so-called gig workers. That proposal is currently in a 45-day public comment period.
Uber, Lyft and other popular apps like DoorDash classify their workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees, which exempts the companies from having to pay a minimum wage, overtime, Social Security, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.
By classifying drivers as independent contractors, Uber and Lyft also shift the cost of purchasing and maintaining a vehicle, gas and insurance onto drivers. The companies say the model allows drivers to have freedom and flexibility in their work that they wouldn’t be afforded as employees.
Abdillahi Mahamed Abdi showed up to the news conference in a shirt that he said was stained with his own blood from a passenger assaulting him with a piece of metal. Abdi said the man also destroyed his phone. He said Uber did not provide him with any financial assistance.
“I had no benefit whatsoever for that incident that happened to me,” Abdi said in Somali through an interpreter.
A spokesman for Uber shared a statement saying the company was “proud to provide a source of extra money” for drivers given the rising cost of food, rent and other living expenses.
“On average, mobility drivers are making $37 per utilized hour on the Uber platform. We look forward to continuing to find ways to support drivers and improve their experience on the platform as they earn with Uber,” the statement said.
A Lyft spokesperson said drivers on its platform earn a similar average wage and that the company “cares deeply about drivers.”
Democrats at the state level are also pushing legislation that would significantly restrict who can be classified as an independent contractor.
Last year, Rep. Emma Greenman authored a bill that would define independent contractors as those who perform work that is “outside the usual course” of business for the employer. Workers would also have to be “free from the control and direction” of the company that hires them and regularly engage in similar work independently.
“When we come back into session, if we are in the majority, this is a priority of our caucus,” said Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, who serves as assistant majority leader.
Ali, whose group now includes 1,000 members after starting about four months ago, said drivers would rather remain independent contractors if the state enacts protections for them. Ali pointed to Washington state, which now requires Uber and Lyft to provide workers with a minimum wage, paid sick leave and access to a third-party appeals process for deactivation.
If state lawmakers fail to pass protections for them, Ali said they would like to be classified as employees and be able to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.
“Drivers cannot solve these issues individually,” Ali said. “If we don’t organize and come together and unite our voices, there is no way we can lay a finger on any of these issues.”
State Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, said Uber and Lyft drivers are misclassified as independent contractors and should be treated like employees. He said he and his colleagues aren’t interested in a compromise that forces the companies to provide some benefits while continuing to classify drivers as independent contractors.
“We don’t agree on a half-baked solution,” Noor said. “Because there’s no in between an employee and an independent contractor.”
The tension between workers wanting the freedom of being an independent contractor with the protections of an employee could complicate progress at the Legislature if drivers and DFL lawmakers can’t get on the same page.
In California, gig workers are currently caught in political crosscurrents. The California Assembly passed a law in 2019 that made Uber and Lyft drivers employees, but it was reversed by voters the next year through a ballot initiative that Uber, Lyft and other companies spent $200 million supporting. That law is currently tied up in a contentious legal battle.
Noor and Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, recently sent a letter to the CEOs of Lyft and Uber asking more than two dozen questions regarding how the companies handle compensation, insurance and working conditions.
Lyft responded with a letter that partially explained its compensation process. Noor said they had a Zoom meeting with an Uber representative.