Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Lyft and Uber are pulling out all PR and legal stops to derail California Assembly Bill 5. This could open the door to classifying rideshare drivers as employees, with labor benefits and a minimum wage. The battle over this was inevitable. I speak from experience. I occasionally drive for Uber and Lyft. Why? Two reasons. One, to raise added funds for my non-profit organization the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable’s inner-city youth scholar-athlete donor programs. The other as a national media commentator, author and columnist and host of a national radio public affairs talk show, I wanted to gather first-hand, material for a YouTube feature on the growing importance of the rideshare business to African American, Hispanic, immigrant and low-income workers.
Lyft and Uber have sold the notion of total freedom and the chance to make a decent income to the legions who drive for them. It’s a gross fallacy. The day after the two strikes against the companies by drivers in February and May I looked at the fares I got for a full day of shuffling passengers around town, or more like several towns. It was still just nickels on the dollar. I could not say no to a passenger without the risk of being suspended or in Lyftspeak parlance “deactivated” i.e. fired. I had more passengers piled in my car with added stops. If there’s a no-show, you get the grand sum of $5.00. Drivers do not get a nickel for their time driving miles to pick up a passenger or returning afterwards.
I was responsible for insurance costs, car maintenance and repair, the cost of keeping the car spotless. I had to shell out top dollar for steadily escalating gas prices. With much fanfare, Lyft and Uber encourage prospective drivers without cars to rent their cars. It sounds like a good deal until you do the math. You must drive countless hours and make countless pick-ups to come close to paying the high weekly rental costs. The more pick-ups, the more profit for Lyft and Uber.
Now the companies play yet another little game. It goes like this. At peak hours after making an inflated number of drives, they’ll add a few more bucks to the pot. The companies love it. It spurs driver competition, ramps up the number of passenger pickups, all for just a cost to the companies of a few paltry dollars more.
From virtually the moment Uber and Lyft hit the streets the grumbles came fast and furious from drivers that the companies were ripping off drivers with meager payments, no insurance protection, virtually no say so over what passengers they could or couldn’t pick up, and zero control over their working conditions. This was hardly the labor or legal definition of an independent contractor. The drivers were de facto employees with none of the benefits, that include a minimum wage, overtime, health care, determined hours, and routine job protections, tax payments and so on.
AB 5 would almost certainly force a major restructure of the ride share business, panic investors, and in a worse case situation force both companies to close their doors. This would have a devastating impact on tens of thousands of drivers who rely on ridesharing for some if not all their income. Many of those tens of thousands are Black, Hispanic, low income workers and immigrants
It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a way out if Lyft and Uber officials are smart enough to take it. Here’s what they can do: Set a daily minimum fee drivers receive based on number of passenger rides, impose a mandatory minimum tip drivers receive for each ride, allow drivers total right to choose passenger rides with no penalties for refusal, create a fund drivers can opt into to cover fuel, insurance, and car maintenance costs, and provide health insurance packages that drivers could opt into.
Lyft and Uber have beat back all attempts to unionize and slap tougher regulations on them. This includes they hope California AB 5 . But what has the furor, and media attention really changed so far? Lyft and Uber made a few cosmetic, PR concessions, such as cash bonuses, some tweaks of the independent contractor relationship, and establishing company sponsored driver focus groups. This is simply buying time and delaying the inevitable. That’s forcing the companies to officially go employee with their drivers.
Lyft and Uber have set a standard for how the gig economy works. It’s made its officials fabulously wealthy. But for thousands of others, the drivers, who rely on rideshare driving to pay the rent, buy food, and other bare bone necessities that standard has been a nightmare. The companies have a chance to end that nightmare for those thousands. I can testify to that because I’m one of them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. He is the president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.