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I’m an Uber Driver and I Don’t Want to Be an Employee

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Ryan Fan
Ryan Fan

Uber. Lyft. Doordash. Grubhub.

All of these gig economy companies have gray areas for the classification of their workers. Right now, drivers, delivery drivers, and cleaners in gig economy work are considered “independent contractors.” Courts and media have debated the question of gig economy workers’ employment status for years now, so what’s the right next step for lawmakers? And what about us, the workers?

On April 29, 2019, the Department of Labor issued an opinion letter stating that service providers working for a virtual marketplace company were independent contractors due to the significant flexibility gig economy companies offered their employees. The distinction between an employee and an independent contractor is especially important: independent contractors aren’t entitled to a minimum wage or overtime pay.

I drive for Uber and Lyft, and I can see the argument for either side of the debate. As an independent contractor, I can set my own hours, drive whenever I want, and make a good amount of money on a busy day. My exchanges with passengers have been pleasant and polite. I also work a full-time job as a teacher in Baltimore City.

Minimum wage, overtime pay, and benefits would be great, but being a contractor has its advantages.

When there’s less demand, I obviously don’t make a lot of money, and my hourly wage can dip below minimum wage. That also doesn’t account for gas, liability and other external costs of using my own car, like frequent oil changes. I’ve mostly solved the problem of low demand by driving for both Uber and Lyft. I keep both apps open, and when I get a ride on Uber, I’ll close Lyft, and vice versa.

Minimum wage, overtime pay, and benefits would be great, but being a contractor has its advantages — flexibility and freedom. As a driver, I’d argue that the labor designations of employee and independent contractor are somewhat outdated for the modern age, and we need an alternative designation.

I know many Uber and Lyft drivers who drive full-time and this is their primary source of income. The high ceiling, low floor precariousness of the job is no joke. Gig economy workers lack the necessary social safety net that unions fought for centuries to have. No matter how fancy the marketing materials are to encourage drivers, there’s no assurance that we or our families will be okay if something goes wrong or unforeseen circumstances derail our ability to work.

Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have committed $90 million to create an alternate classification for drivers in California, one that would include more employee protections and guaranteed minimum pay. The proposal might sound good at first, but as the Los Angeles Times points out, it could make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors.

Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have all but accepted that the bill will pass through the California legislature and be signed by the governor of California, but now they are working on a second bill that creates this alternative employment category. Labor groups in California have been divided on the issue. Some, like the Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers, strongly oppose any alternative legislation. Other labor unions, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), push for a more comprehensive ride-share driver bill that allows drivers to organize and have even more labor protections.

Prominent Democratic politicians and presidential candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg, have largely supported Assembly Bill 5 (AB-5). Buttigieg joined Uber and Lyft drivers in a demonstration led by the group Gig Workers Rising in San Francisco.

“If you are working a gig you are a worker and you oughta be protected as a worker,” Buttigieg says. “That means you deserve a minimum wage. That means you deserve protections from workplace and sexual harassment. That means you deserve overtime protections. And yes, that means you deserve a union.”

These guarantees make no note of how much time drivers spend just waiting for rides without making any money.

Uber made an announcement guaranteeing minimum pay of $21 an hour while drivers have a rider, as well as “injured worker protection.” Both companies also proposed “sectoral bargaining,” letting one union represent all ride-share drivers. The announcement as a whole petitioned drivers to fight AB-5 in California.

But, these guarantees make no note of how much time drivers spend just waiting for rides without making any money. What happens when a driver is waiting for a ride? As Christian Perrara notes in his blog, “I can spend 60%+ of my time logged in and waiting for ride requests.” And for drivers who work in smaller markets outside big cities, Uber and Lyft drivers can spend much more of their time waiting for a ride. If a driver had a passenger in the car for the entire hour, then maybe they would make $21 an hour. If not, however, the reality looks a lot bleaker.

I’m concerned that an alternate category between employee and contractor would make it more difficult for drivers and gig economy workers to unionize. Gig economy workers should always have that option, but rideshare drivers currently do not. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) gig economy workers are considered contractors, and only employees can unionize under federal law.

We’re distrustful of the alternate category of gig economy workers because of who’s laying out the terms for the category: the companies themselves, like Uber or Lyft.

They aren’t getting any input from drivers themselves, and that’s what matters. While I understand some labor unions’ animosity towards a third category in the first place, the reality is that not every gig economy worker would benefit from being designated an employee, myself included.

It is important to note how much we use and depend on Uber and Lyft. Even Buttigieg, Warren, and Harris, the three Democratic candidates who overwhelmingly support AB-5, are among the presidential candidates who have spent the most money on ride-sharing services. I personally wouldn’t participate at all in gig economy services like Uber or Lyft, nor would I freelance on Medium if I had better options and if I didn’t perceive the benefits to outweigh the costs

The Hamilton Project has advocated for a worker-driven third category of “independent worker,” one that I do support. It allows for many of the benefits and protections of employees, like the ability to organize and collectively bargain, to have basic civil rights protections (such as protection against discrimination based on race, gender, and protection against harassment and sexual harassment), tax withholding, and employer contributions for payroll taxes. The proposal also requires that intermediaries like Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash contribute half of Social Security and Medicare taxes. I believe that having the power of collective bargaining would allow many drivers to have a larger voice in the gray areas of how a driver should be compensated in situations like Perrara illuminates: when they are logged into the app waiting for a ride, but not getting any.

However, this proposal doesn’t allow independent workers to qualify for hours-based benefits like overtime or minimum wage requirements, or unemployment benefits, mainly due to the fact that workers can choose to work whenever they want. The purpose of Hamilton Project’s proposal is to extend legal protections to independent workers that can then lead to more fiscal protections. In the words of the authors of the project, they want to “extend the social compact between workers and employers, and reduce the legal uncertainty and legal costs that currently beset many independent worker relationships.”

The proposal would protect workers, improve living standards, and reduce the precariousness and uncertainty of being a gig economy worker, while not ignoring the best interests of the gig economy companies.

But there’s a catch with this proposal too. It doesn’t give independent workers minimum wage requirements because it’s impossible for an intermediary to determine if a worker is actually “working.” The authors write, “a worker could spend time at home with her app turned on, waiting for a possible work opportunity, while primarily performing work for another intermediary or engaging in non-work activities.”

If I have the app turned on while I’m commuting home, I have to be prepared at any moment for my 30-minute commute to suddenly be transformed into a 90-minute commute.

The authors clearly don’t understand what it is like to work in the gig economy. If I’m sitting at home playing Xbox with Uber and Lyft turned on, the moment I get a request, I have to jump out of my seat and run to the car as soon as humanly possible. Even drivers “not working” with the app turned on need to be ready and prepared. There are a lot of things a driver can’t do with the app turned on, like watch their kids, go to class, or cook a meal. As a teacher, I would love to see the look on my principal’s face if I had to storm out of a classroom mid-lesson to drive an Uber.

If I have the app turned on while I’m commuting home, I have to be prepared at any moment for my 30-minute commute to suddenly be transformed into a 90-minute commute. Someone on the app is always on reserve to go at any second. Is being on reserve like that not “working”?

The Hamilton Project’s proposal is flawed, but it’s the best thing out there right now. As a driver, I think labor unions and gig economy companies should be open to a third category of gig economy workers similar to the Hamilton Project’s independent worker proposal — not one with terms laid out by the companies, but with terms laid out by the workers themselves.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Originally published on September 2, 2019 on OneZero.