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The fight to reclassify some gig workers in California

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Uber and Lyft conceptual road concept using toy cars.

By Emily Rose Thorne, Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism

In California, gig workers that drive for companies like Uber and Lyft, got a win August 10 in federal court when the court sided with drivers to enforce Assembly Bill 5, AB5, a law that forces companies to reclassify contractors as employees. The move would force the companies to offer employees job benefits.

The federal court granted a preliminary injunction request but the fight is far from over. In November’s election, voters will weigh in on the ballot measure, Proposition 22, that would exempt five gig economy companies. According to CNET, the companies have put together a social media campaign that targets people who support the move and threatened to suspend services which forced California to stall implementing AB5.

Many gig workers have continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people considered “essential” are still going to work, even if they don’t feel safe on the job.

Gig workers—including those who drive for app companies providing delivery and rideshare services—are one subset of workers considered essential. The gig economy is primarily made up of people with marginalized identities who often live paycheck-to-paycheck. Many say that the pandemic has upended their livelihoods, economically and physically.

Gig workers see dramatic drop in wages

Chris Benner is a faculty member in the Departments of Environmental Studies and Sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Benner collected data about gig workers’ ability to access personal protective equipment (PPE) and other benefits as essential workers during a pandemic that has claimed nearly 185,000 American lives.

According to Benner’s study, gig workers have lost significant income since February, when the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the United States. More than half of the respondents in his study reported losing 75-100% of their weekly earnings during that period.

Benner also found that most delivery drivers belong to marginalized groups, meaning the drop in wages disproportionately affects the nation’s most vulnerable.

About half of America’s gig workers are immigrants, almost 70% are people of color, 69% have no college degree and 17% have no health insurance, Benner said.

Gig workers struggle to access PPE

Benner said that platform companies haven’t provided workers with adequate PPE, even as they perform essential work during the pandemic.

“Consistently people are reporting getting very little support from the platform companies themselves,” Benner said. “They were taking some more precautions on their own initiatives around wearing gloves or using hand sanitizer, wearing masks.”

George Gonzales, a delivery driver with Instacart and UberEats in Sacramento, California, said that he reached out to the companies he drives for: Uber, Lyft and Instacart. Instacart allowed him to request an order of PPE, but he was expected to retrieve it from a distribution location in Oakland—an hour and a half from Sacramento. Unable to make the drive, Gonzales had to forgo the supplies and resorted to spraying the inside of his car with Lysol between drives.

“It’s extremely hard doing this on our own without any kind of backup from Uber, Lyft or Instacart,” Gonzales said. 

Drivers begin to organize

For many workers, the push to continue providing their delivery services during a pandemic has prompted a surge in driver organizing. The challenges drivers face as gig workers has been highlighted by their lack of access to sick pay and PPE.

Angela Vogel organizes with Philadelphia Drivers Union. She’s helping lead the fight for income transparency among the companies, who don’t collect income data from drivers. The lack of data makes it difficult to advocate large-scale for higher wages, insurance and job benefits.

“Legislators often use the lack of access to data as a reason why they cannot go to Uber and Lyft and hold them accountable,” Vogel said.

So far, Vogel said that Philadelphia Drivers Union has been successful in pressuring Uber to pay for some Philadelphia drivers’ car insurance. They’re also active proponents of California’s AB5, which will be on the ballot in November. 

“I really believe that some of the things that we’ve learned are going to impact worker movements as a whole across the U.S.,” Vogel said.

For more, listen to the full story here.

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