The legal status of rideshare drivers has been a contentious issue, especially in California. Many drivers have been fighting for state government to force companies like Uber and Lyft to classify them as employees, as this would give them better pay and benefits. The companies, along with some of their drivers, want to continue having the drivers be independent contractors. This is cheaper for the companies and advantageous for some drivers.
The issue has gone back and forth in recent years. In 2019, a budding driver’s union won the legal battle and forced them to classify drivers as employees, but then a ballot initiative led to that being reversed, leaving the drivers as contractors. Recently, a court ruled that the ballot measure was unconstitutional, which would revert the drivers back to being employees. This was in response to a lawsuit brought by a union, and a group that represents the companies and some drivers has vowed to appeal.
The future of rideshare apps is in question, too. What to do about rideshare in general is tricky for cities. Issues like pollution, congestion, and the management of rideshare drivers’ pickup and dropoff points at large events all challenge a city’s ability to have a productive relationship with rideshare companies. Also, the impending onslaught of autonomous vehicles (whenever that actually happens) could make for major changes in the industry. These issues need to be a part of any conversation about rideshare drivers, as it wouldn’t make sense to litigate this out and then watch the whole industry die off, making all of that effort wasted.
In this article, I want to explore the reasons that this isn’t the black-and-white issue rideshare companies and drivers’ unions want us to think it is, and then explore the ways that this problem could be solved through flexibility rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
Reasons Many Drivers Want To Be Employees
Full-time driving for companies like Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Postmates can be hard. I know this because I’ve been there. When it’s busy, a driver can make hundreds of dollars in just a couple of hours, and take a good chunk out of their income needs. When it’s not busy, being a driver can be very emotionally draining. Watching the hours go by without a person to pick up turns into an hours long panic attack as you know your rent, utility bills, insurance, and even need for food don’t ever relent. When you get sick, your income goes to zero. When something goes wrong with the car you couldn’t afford to maintain, your income goes to zero, too.
The companies have turned rideshare and delivery driving into what I call a “shall issue” job. Normally, companies hire employees or contractors only when they need them, but anybody who meets the requirements to be a driver becomes a driver, not unlike the “shall issue” permitting systems many states have in place for concealed weapons permits. Unlike guns, which are expensive and come with great potential for both legal and safety risks for someone choosing to carry one, almost everyone has a car and isn’t afraid to use it every day (despite the very real car risks I’ll get into later in Part 2).
Combine this with bad economic conditions in the 2010s, and potential employees liked the idea of finding quick work instead of going through an agonizing and often abusive or discriminatory job hunt. When the job market was in favor of employers, they weren’t afraid to “ghost” applicants and be downright abusive to see who would put up with it. Even worse, stealth discrimination against people of color, single mothers, some religions, the LGBT community, and other groups made a job hunt even harder for a significant chunk of the population.
Rideshare driving gave everyone tired of the degrading dead-end job chase an alternative, so many people who would have never considered driving professionally in the past jumped in with little hesitation.
While I’ll get into the effects on cities later, the tidal wave of rideshare drivers in the mid to late 2010s has been awful for the rideshare drivers, too. When more drivers chase the same number of passengers, everybody makes less money. Early in rideshare driving, engineers and even doctors were quitting their jobs to go drive because the pay was initially great per mile and you could stay busy all day driving. But, people later found that they had fallen into a trap as the number of passengers they’d pick up in a day and the pay per mile dropped and dropped and dropped.
Forcing companies like Uber and Lyft to give drivers minimum wage would put an end to the practice of flooding the streets with struggling and sometimes even homeless rideshare drivers. Yes, I knew several rideshare drivers in Phoenix who had lost their homes when the pay got bad, and were living out of their cars and trying to hang on.
Employee status would also keep drivers from feeling the need to work longer and longer hours to make ends meet, forgoing sleep and even healthy meals in the process. There were times that I was doing this full time where my wife would ask that I try to stay out until I had made a daily goal we needed to pay the bills, and on the worst days, I’d be out for 18 hours to get it. That’s just not healthy or sustainable for a person when it happens several times a week.
When you consider all of this, it’s hard to see the push for employee status and unionization as part of some communist plot against good capitalist companies. There’s a lot of real human suffering from Uber and Lyft’s unusual use of contractors in many cities.
To Be Continued…
In the second part to this article, I’m going to explore the reasons that not only the companies, but some drivers don’t want drivers to be employees. Despite the above, there are several legitimate situations where it makes more sense for a driver to want to be a contractor. Then, I’m going to talk about the part of the conversation that seems to get ignored: rideshare’s effect on the rest of people living in cities. Ridesharing also has a very unsure future that may render this whole debate moot.
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