Washington State Passes Controversial New Gig Worker Law

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James Childers says he really likes his job behind the wheel Uber and backlash in Spokane, a city in the state of Washington. But since he started working for taxi companies in 2017, he’s seen a driver’s share of every fare receipt. Once three-quarters of every ride went straight into his pocket, he says, companies now use formulas that make drivers earn as little as $9 an hour and sometimes tips, which are below the state’s minimum wage.

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But Childers became involved with the Drivers Union, an advocacy group affiliated with the local Teamsters union, after an intransigent allegation of racism by a passenger forced him to temporarily shut down the Uber app. (The company relented when he showed it the dashcam footage of the incident, he said.) “Uber and Lyft don’t care,” he says. “They have other drivers waiting in the wings.” The company declined to comment on the specific incident.

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Now, Childers is hoping a new state law regulating drivers, signed into law by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, will give drivers more remedies against companies and pay at least as much as they did five years ago. billwhich is the result of negotiations between Uber, Lyft and local affiliate Teamsters, maintains the status of independent driver contractors in the state and protects the core business model of taxi companies.

Drivers across the state will get new licenses. They will receive sick pay and receive minimum pay guarantees based on the time and distance they spend on each trip, although the guarantees will only apply to the time they are carrying or picking up passengers. Drivers typically report spending 40 to 60 percent of their time without people in their vehicles. They can also use the new 15-cent passenger fee to fund a driver resource center that could provide assistance to those who have been removed from the company’s apps. But drivers won’t get the full range of traditional benefits that come with working in the state, including health care. And taxi companies will still not pay unemployment insurance payments, which has upset many drivers during the pandemic. when the rides suddenly ran out.

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In a statement, Ramona Prieto, Uber’s head of policy for the Western US, said the bill allows drivers to “remain independent while enjoying historic new benefits and protections.” Lyft’s head of government relations Jen Hensley said the law gives drivers “the flexibility, independence, benefits and protection they want and deserve.”

At eleven o’clock Thursday, newly appointed National Drivers Union President Sean O’Brien publicly called for the state governor to veto the bill, saying it would introduce standards that could undermine existing workers’ rights in other sectors.

The local Teamsters, which helped develop the bill, disagreed. “Uber and Lyft drivers, like all workers, deserve a labor movement that respects their right to self-determination, set their own priorities, stand in solidarity with them in their struggle, and will never give up the fight for fairness and justice,” the statement said. Trade Union Secretary-Treasurer John Skeersey.

Uber and Lyft hope this legislation will pave the way for other legislation to support taxi driver independent contractor status across the country and around the world. California voters in 2020 approved Proposal 22, the gig-company-funded campaign that overturned the state’s statutory designation of drivers as employees. So far, the winning strategy seems to depend on one word: “agility.”

The case for agility was everywhere, with official Uber and Lyft announcements about gig workers rights; in the name of another compromise proposal with the union In Canada, called Flex Work+; and on behalf of a newly formed company in Washington, DC. trade associationcalled Flex.

The message began to appear in other legislative debates, including in Massachusetts and Illinoiswhere campaigns to pass such bills are already underway.

But flexibility means different things to different drivers. Nicole Moore, a part-time Lyft driver and organizer for California-based advocacy group Rideshare Drivers United, says true flexibility will allow drivers to set their own prices in response to changes. like gas price fluctuationsor find out how much they will earn on trips before accepting them.

“One hundred percent of us want flexibility and independence, but that’s not what we’re given,” she says.

After California passed a law requiring gig companies to treat their employees like employees, Uber debuted features that give drivers greater control over fares and travel destinations. But the company rolled them back after the victory of its electoral initiative. Uber is now offering a feature called “upfront pricing” in several US cities, a feature that gives drivers an estimate of how much they’ll earn for a ride before they accept it, but also includes a restructured fare. Lyft does not have a similar feature.

For years, gig companies have argued that their employees are more than just 21st-century taxi drivers or delivery men. Instead, they argue that drivers are involved in a new kind of work that requires a new labor code. Drivers are business owners who use apps to find leads. They make their own schedule and can sign up and earn money whenever they want. But turn those same drivers into employees, the companies warn, and they won’t have flexible hours anymore.

Some people, including drivers, find parts of this argument compelling. In hearings before Washington lawmakers, many drivers, organized through the local Teamsters drivers union, said higher wages, sick pay and flexible hours were their priorities. Many drivers outside of Seattle hoped that their wages would come closer to the city, where taxi drivers have been working since 2020. was the minimum wage over $16 when there are passengers in their cars.

“I think we’ve got our edge,” says Peter Kuehl, who has been a driver for statewide companies since 2014 and is now president of the Drivers’ Union. He called the law “a huge compromise.”

Other labor and legal experts argue that employees can have flexible hours too. And they warn that securing independent contractor status for gig workers is a slippery slope. The Washington law “is an erosion of basic worker rights, supported by a fundamental misunderstanding that there is anything special about hiring workers through an app,” says Brian Chen, senior lawyer at the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group. “Once these bills are passed, they will open the door for industry after industry to try and rewrite the law to their own satisfaction.”

Many workers find companies’ arguments about flexibility compelling because they draw on compelling American ideas about independence and being your own boss, says Vina Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings who studies technology and work. “There’s something really cool about not having to go or talk to a human resources representative before you can download the app and work whenever you want,” she says. “But the details belie the legend that it’s really a flexible job.”

The gigantic work divided the labor movement. Unions in Canada and United Kingdom made deals with transport companies. But the Massachusetts affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the US, opposed the Washington state law. And on Thursday, the new president of the International Brotherhood of Drivers called for a veto on the bill, on the creation of which local carters worked. The official, Sean O’Brien, said drivers should be classified as employees, not independent contractors, and warned that unions should not become “an association to grab money.”

“These [gig] companies control workers so much and don’t want to take any responsibility,” says Kara Deniz, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Drivers.

The battle will now enter a new state. Attorney General of Massachusetts sued Uber and Lyft in 2020, alleging that the companies violated state law by treating drivers as contractors rather than employees. (The lawsuit is still pending.) In response, the firms backed the ballot initiative. and legislation that would make drivers’ independent worker status permanent.

This week, the Massachusetts Legislature’s joint finance committee held hearings on the state’s bill. Testimony from drivers, company representatives, union advocates and lawmakers with questions dragged on for six hours. And at the committee meeting, taxi companies used familiar words: “Drivers, they say, need flexibility.

Updated 04/01/2022 4:30 PM ET: This story has been updated to reflect additional information from Uber received after publication.

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