City commission urges new protections, support for gig workers

Recommendations include minimum wage, licensing, restrooms, rideshare co-op

After conducting two surveys on gig workers and the impact of coronavirus on them, a city oversight commission is recommending new regulations for app-based services in San Francisco.

The Local Agency Formation Commission, known as LAFCo, may vote at a Friday hearing to recommend setting a minimum wage, exploring a ride-hail driver’s cooperative, and obtaining data from app-based companies.

The commission, including members of the public as well as supervisors, commissioned a study on gig workers during the shelter-in-place last month and found that most sought better protections from public officials so they could access unemployment and paid sick leave benefits.

About 54 percent said they lost more than $500 a week in income, 37 percent said they lost all of it, and another 19 percent said they lost more than three-quarters of their income due to coronavirus. About 28 percent said they were still accepting work despite coronavirus fears, but 62 percent said they were working less as a result.

“Many of them are afraid to contract the virus but have to do that because they had no choice,” said Chris Benner, a UC Santa Cruz professor and director of the college’s Institute for Social Transformation, who led the study. “Because of their independent contractor status and the large number of immigrant workers here, we think many are falling through the cracks.”

When the coronavirus pandemic began, LAFCo was in the midst of conducting a larger study on gig work in San Francisco with Jobs with Justice that fielded 643 responses from workers on six apps, about half from Uber and Lyft. Forty-five percent of those respondents said they couldn’t handle a $400 emergency without borrowing, 15 percent said they receive public assistance like food stamps, 21 percent said they have no health insurance, and 30 percent said they use public programs like Covered California and Medi-Cal.

Most respondents said it was their primary source of income and work full-time hours, with 30 percent reporting working more than 50 hours a week. Median earnings before expenses for ride-hail workers is $900 a week and $500 a week for delivery workers, with tips making up 30 percent of delivery worker earnings.

After expenses, LAFCo researchers estimated as many as 20 percent might just be breaking even. They face other challenges as well, with 7 percent of ride-hail drivers and 86 percent of delivery workers unable to access a bathroom while 40 percent of drivers and 52 percent of delivery workers spending more than 12 hours in a row doing app-based work several times a month.

After coronavirus hit the Bay Area, researchers paused and switched gears in April to hear from 219 gig workers on platforms like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Amazon Flex and Instacart specifically about the impact of the emergency.

“My expectation is that most peoples’ economic circumstances may have just gotten worse in most cases,” Benner said of impacts since the study. “Many people have tried to move into doing food delivery, also…essentially it’s a flooded labor market. If they don’t snatch it up within five seconds, someone else has snatched it up.”

On top of the financial strain, those still working reported safety concerns. Forty-one percent said they were provided personal protective gear, 30 percent said they were offered training on how to protect themselves while working with customers, and 27 percent said their platform company offered financial assistance if they were exposed to coronavirus. Forty-three percent felt their platforms weren’t doing enough to adequately protect them, while 16 percent felt they had reasonable protections.

Using data from the two surveys, commission staff recommended enforcing regulations like minimum wage for ride-hail and delivery workers, issuing licenses, exploring a city-run ridesharing cooperative, providing access to platform company data, creating a restroom facility for app-based workers, and expanding protected bike lanes that would benefit e-bike delivery workers and other cyclists.

Rideshare drivers are among the gig workers facing extraordinary challenges during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)                                A group of rideshare drivers calling for Uber and Lyft to pay for unemployment benefits honk and circle during a caravan protest outside Uber headquarters on Monday, May 11, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Rideshare drivers are among the gig workers facing extraordinary challenges during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner) A group of rideshare drivers calling for Uber and Lyft to pay for unemployment benefits honk and circle during a caravan protest outside Uber headquarters on Monday, May 11, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In the short term, Uber has said it will provide $360 to its most active drivers if they’re unable to work due to coronavirus and has shipped 30,000 bottles of disinfectant and ordered tens of millions more masks to distribute around the world. Lyft has set aside $2.5 million to buy protective equipment and will launch a health safety program in the coming weeks with training and masks requirements.

“Our focus during the COVID-19 pandemic is on helping keep riders, drivers and team members safe,” said Lyft in a statement. “And while ride demand is temporarily down, we’re actively expanding our platform to include delivery and transportation partnerships with health care, government and businesses. This work helps create new opportunities for drivers, arranges rides to those in need and helps distribute essential goods.”

When asked what they needed during the pandemic, 73.2 percent said they agreed on emergency funds to pay their bills, 46.5 percent said yes to paid sick leave, 39.4 percent wanted access to health care benefits, and 55.9 percent said yes to protections from exposure to sick people.

Similar sentiments manifested when asked what action they wanted public officials to take. Roughly 65 percent said they wanted the government to produce free personal protective equipment like sanitizer as well as emergency financial assistance,

In addition, 63 percent sought enforcement of laws like Assembly Bill 5 that reclassified independent contractors. That law was immediately challenged by the Uber, Lyft and DoorDash-funded ballot measure Protect App-Based Drivers and Services.

However, a conflicting survey by blog The Rideshare Guy, shared by ballot measure proponents, found that 71 percent of drivers wanted to keep their existing status in the midst of coronavirus.

“Taking away the ability of drivers to work as independent contractors will eliminate earning opportunities and jobs for hundreds of thousands of drivers at the worst possible time,” said measure spokesperson Stacey Wells. “[The measure] protects the choice drivers are making to work as independent contractors, while providing them historic new benefits and protections, such as a guarantee of 120 percent of minimum wage, new health care contribution, occupational accident insurance to protect against injuries and illnesses on the job, and new payments for expenses.”

Nearly 70 percent in the broader LAFCo study deemed a flexible schedule extremely important as well as fair pay. More than 40 percent found predictable pay, access to health insurance and basic worker protections like unemployment insurance to be extremely important.

LAFCo, which includes San Francisco supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer, Gordon Mar and Matt Haney, will discuss the study findings and recommendations on Friday.

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