Organizers Cherri Murphy (left), Al Aloudi (front), and Erica Mighetto (in the back) pass out signs and PPE to drivers who joined the caravan on Thursday April 16, 2020. (Courtesy Al Aloudi)

Uber and Lyft drivers demand unemployment benefits

Drivers are banding together in an attempt to make rideshare giants acknowledge and pay them as employees, not contractors.

An auto caravan organized by Rideshare Drivers United (RDU) drove in solidarity and protest Thursday from the Employment Development Department (EDD) on Turk Street to the Labor Commissioner’s Office on Golden Gate Avenue, demanding elimination of barriers to unemployment benefits for rideshare drivers, and compensation for pending wage claims drivers have filed.

Bay Area driver and RDU Co-Leader Erica Mighetto, who helped organize the caravan, said she has been without housing since October. She and other drivers have been out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and unable to receive any state unemployment compensation, despite having their full-time work interrupted.

Uber and Lyft drivers thus far haven’t been eligible for unemployment benefits since those rideshare giants have paid zero dollars into California’s unemployment fund by classifying these workers as contractors rather than employees. As a result, drivers applying for California state unemployment benefits as employees have received no relief.

This refusal to classify drivers as employees has persisted despite the passage of Assembly Bill 5 (AB-5), a law that took effect in January, making it much harder for gig-work companies to continue classifying employees as independent contractors. After applying for exemption from AB-5 and being rejected, Uber and Lyft pledged $30 million each to a campaign aimed at reversing the bill.

Vanessa Bain, an Instacart worker, is a co-founder of the Gig Workers Collective. (Courtesy Erica Mighetto)

“By refusing to comply with the law to classify workers as employees and provide wage data the state needs to process claims, these companies deliberately held up funds that drivers could be using now to pay for necessities like rent and food.” the California Labor Federation said in a statement on Wednesday. “Several hundred thousand drivers in California face the grim reality of empty bank accounts and bare cupboards.”

The burden of proof of income has fallen on the drivers when applying online for wage claims and unemployment benefits, Southern California driver and RDU Co-Leader Tammie Jean Lee said in an RDU zoom press conference held after the caravan.

Lane detailed a painstaking process of going back in some cases week by week to calculate six quarters of gross income in order to apply for unemployment as well as unpaid wages, including expenses such as gas, mileage, and time spent on the clock.

“This is a long process that we’ve started to let the government see that if we were paid like employees how much we would be owed,” Lane said.

“We have to go through all these papers, when these companies could do it with the push of a button,” she added.

Lane encouraged drivers to go to RDU’s website and follow steps for filing for unemployment and wage claims.

“Apply for unemployment as an employee. That’s what we are. Stand up for your rights, we are employees.”

“It’s a moral shame. They refuse to acknowledge us or abide by the law,” said Bay Area driver and RDU Co-Leader Cherri Murphy at the press conference. “There are over 100,000 workers not getting unemployment benefits, including me.”

Drivers at the press conference said that they were already hurting before the pandemic, as compensation had been gradually reduced from a peak of $1.95 per mile all the way down to 60 cents per mile in March of 2019, cutting income by more than 50%.

Lyft driver Danny Raviart joined a caravan on Thursday April 16, 2020 protesting ride-hail companies’ refusal to pay for unemployment benefits. (Courtesy Erica Mighetto)

The California Labor Federation and SEIU California have both condemned these companies’ behavior as negligent and demanded back pay into the state’s unemployment fund.

“Uber, Lyft and other gig companies must immediately pay their fair share into our state’s stressed unemployment fund and direct the funds from their anti-worker campaign war chest to the immediate relief their workers demand,” SEIU California said in a statement on Wednesday.

The state of New Jersey asked for $650 million in unpaid unemployment taxes from Uber last year, claiming that they misclassified their employees. A similar bill from California would likely run Uber multiple billions, given the volume of drivers in the state.

Uber and Lyft recently succeeded in securing unemployment coverage through the federal CARES ACT, making drivers eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which only contractors are eligible for. While this provides an option for some immediate relief, advocates fear that it sets a bad precedent.

“I’m worried it sets a cultural practice for state agencies to start thinking of these workers as contractors and rejecting unemployment insurance claims in the future,” UC Hastings Law Professor Veena Dubal said to KQUED, “when really these workers are employees who should always be entitled to unemployment.”

RDU members at the zoom conference echoed this fear, and also voiced concern around the clarity of the application process.

Southern California driver Ali Hareth said he doesn’t know what the application is going to look like, and drivers will have spent 45 days waiting with no benefits before they can get access.

Secretary of the California Labor and Workplace Development Agency Julie Su said in an open letter on Tuesday that “there will be a one-stop shop for applying for UI and PUA. Individuals will be able to go to UI Online to self-certify that they meet the COVID-19-related criteria for PUA.”

The state website will be up on April 28, and be able to pay people within 24-48 hours of submitting their application, and allows for retroactive payment back to January 27th. Workers will be eligible for the weekly unemployment assistance from January 27 through December 31 of this year depending on when they became unemployed.

“We of course are not going to suggest that drivers don’t apply for PUA,” said RDU Co-Leader Tina Givens. “But the issue is, that sets a dangerous precedent, that we’re allowing the taxpayers to bail out these billion dollar corporations that actually owe us this unemployment insurance under AB-5. We are entitled to unemployment insurance.”

“For them to put us in a position where they continue to deny us and misclassify us as employees and force us to wait another two weeks to apply for the PUA, when we could have been collecting unemployment insurance this whole time, it sets a dangerous precedent that we agree with them that we’re independent contractors, and in California we are not. So we are encouraging our drivers to go to our website, to look at the step by step instructions to apply for unemployment and wage claims.”

“There are a million more workers here who are also suffering, all because the companies they work for refuse to call them employees. As taxpayers, we’re covering those workers so that their bosses can make out like bandits,” said the California Labor Federation in a statement.

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