Guest Commentary - To celebrate workers, we must end gig economy exploitation

gig economy

By Mekela Edwards, Special to CalMatters |

Among the many things 2020 will be known for in California, it will go down as the year when someone tried to put an asterisk next to Labor Day.

It would look something like this:

Labor Day* – A national holiday that honors the contributions of American workers and pays tribute to the struggles that led to historic protections against workplace exploitation, including the minimum wage, the 8-hour workday and compensation for injuries suffered while on the job.

* Does not apply to those who work for app-based transportation and delivery companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash.

As one of the tens of thousands of California workers who drive a car for Uber or Lyft, I have never received any of those basic worker benefits and protections. But we had every reason to believe that Labor Day 2020 would at last be a day we could celebrate.

After all, in 2018 the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that companies must treat workers who perform their core functions as employees. Then in 2019, the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom codified that decision.

But eight months into 2020, these companies are still refusing to follow the law. Instead, they wrote a ballot initiative to try to exempt themselves – and only themselves – from the workplace laws that apply to all other businesses.

As the fall campaign season unofficially kicks off, these companies have ponied up a combined $110 million for the effort to pass Proposition 22.

On this day to honor workers, we should reflect upon what they’re trying to do.

They are seeking to permanently enshrine their labor force as second-class workers. For them, all fundamental labor standards that American workers enjoy would not apply – a minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, disability and medical coverage for injuries sustained on the job, unemployment insurance, access to safety equipment and more.

If they succeed, it will open the door to rolling back a century of progress in establishing basic workplace rights and benefits.

The deceptive game plan to pass Prop. 22 is to promote it as something that would benefit drivers. But look at the fine print.

For instance, they say that under Prop. 22 drivers would be paid at least 120% of the minimum wage. But the fine print says the companies would pay only for “engaged time,” defined as the time spent picking up and delivering passengers. Uber and Lyft would pay nothing for time spent fueling cars or waiting for the next assignment. Studies show that such unpaid time accounts for a third or more of a driver’s time when she is out on the road.

During this pandemic, many drivers are taking extra steps to ensure their customers’ safety. That includes disinfecting the car after every ride. For this time, too, Uber and Lyft would pay their drivers nothing.

The bottom line is that they are offering a sub-minimum wage.

There are other provisions as well that don’t meet up to the standards of protection the law gives to all other workers.

Uber and Lyft say most of their drivers work only a few hours a week as a part-time gig.

A recent study by UC Santa Cruz, however, shows that the bulk of the driving is being done by full-time workers. They surveyed drivers who actually responded to their random requests for service and found that 72% were working more than 30 hours a week, half were working more than 40 hours and a third were working more than 50 hours.

Like me, they are real workers, doing real jobs, doing what they can to pay their rent and support their families.

It’s past time for these companies to recognize that and to start obeying the law.

Don’t let Uber and Lyft stain the dignity of work by putting an asterisk next to Labor Day. Vote No on Prop. 22.

Mekela Edwards is a rideshare driver for Uber from Oakland. Elk Grove News is a media partner. 

Follow us on Twitter @ElkGroveNews


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