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Speed Grocery Delivery Workers Are in a Dangerous Race

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A new industry of venture-capital-backed startups claim their workers are fast. Are they faster than regulations?

NEW YORK?—?Anthony Hom offers tips to delivery workers on his YouTube channel, Ride With Anthony. In one 15-minute, day-in-the-life video titled ?“Delivering Groceries Almost Kills Worker NYC,” Hom records himself on an electric bicycle delivering groceries through the streets of Manhattan, through a 20 mph wind he says is ?“pushing him sideways,” past a street barrier that blows into his path and avoiding a car that swerves without signaling.

That day, Hom was delivering for startup 1520, which launched in Manhattan in January 2021. It promised delivery in 15 to 20 minutes ?“or it’s free,” hence the name.

Grocery speed-delivery services surged in New York in 2021, heavily backed by venture capital. Already, expansion is outpacing protections, experts and advocates say (though 1520 has now shuttered, having drained its initial funding of $7.8 million). Delivery workers for the startups commute using e?bikes, and sometimes e?scooters, often provided, and branded, by the company they work for.

The ads are hard to miss, complete with neon color palettes and obscure names (see JOKR and Gorillas) and websites claiming the pasta will be ?“delivered before the water boils.”

The 20-minute delivery window is possible because of strategically located, company-owned micro-warehouses that each stock a limited supply of curated products, with an operating radius of about 2 miles (New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer has alleged the ?“dark stores” are illegally located in commercial and residential zones.)

Hom started as a full-time delivery courier for 1520 in September 2021, motivated by the prospect of being an employee with hourly pay and the requisite benefits and protections, which he would not receive as an independent contractor, where pay scales can be radically different each day. On paper, the difference seems like a big move for the delivery and gig-economy industry; the majority of delivery workers for third-party apps are classified as independent contractors, which leaves them ineligible for minimum wage protections, sick pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and other benefits.

Without robust, enforced regulations, however, some advocates say the move is more about public relations than social responsibility.

“Speed delivery is testing new business models to maximize their profit, create competitive advantage and grow in the app delivery market,” says Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project. ?“They need a reliable workforce that can be 24/7— and this means paying the minimum and giving minimum protections, so they can control the labor more rapidly.”

Speed-delivery workers in New York City are covered under Administrative Code 10?–?157, which sets standards for businesses using bicycles for commercial purposes, according to Vincent Barone, press secretary for the city Department of Transportation. But Hildalyn Colón Hernández, policy director for the Worker’s Justice Project, says speed-delivery companies often do not comply. She cites examples such as providing reflective uniforms for safety and company identification on the bikes, guidelines that restaurant delivery services are required to follow, while some speed-delivery services are lacking, she says.

Meanwhile, the delivery industry itself is rapidly changing. ?“We have an industry that is emerging extremely fast, with a slower government sector,” Colón Hernández says. In September 2021, for example, the New York City Council passed legislation granting workers for third-party delivery apps (like Uber Eats and DoorDash) new protections, including access to restaurant bathrooms and transparency about daily compensation?—?but that particular legislation does not cover speed-delivery from micro-warehouses.

Hom quit 1520 because of ?“a lot of close calls” and the inflexibility of his schedule, he says. The average shift for 1520 workers was 12 hours according to Hom, but he says no delivery worker should be out longer than 8 hours: ?“Your body gets fatigued, not just your muscle but your instincts. That’s when human error takes place.”

As an employee, he says he was on the clock regardless of weather conditions. ?“When it’s raining, snowing, really cold outside, the hazardous work conditions, you still gotta deliver these groceries,” Hom says, adding: ?“If you refuse to, you’re probably going to get written up.”

When remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through New York in September 2021, images of delivery workers fulfilling orders for those hunkered down at home circulated online. One video, which shows a rider carrying an order through waist-deep water, prompted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tweet, ?“If it’s too dangerous for you, it’s too dangerous for them.”

To Colón Hernández, the unacceptability of this risk should be obvious. ?“If there is a hurricane, no one should be out there,” she says. She adds that, even in wintry conditions, ?“They are out there doing the work that nobody wants to do. They need to be compensated fairly.”

Veena Dubal, a San Francisco-based law professor whose research centers on the gig economy, says, ?“In an industry where there is such a high rate
of injury, so much wear and tear on one’s body and health, there has to be a wage premium,” Dubal says. ?“These have to be good jobs, not make-it-by-the-seat-of-my-pants jobs.”

Josh Wood, a delivery worker for Uber Eats covered by the new delivery legislation, says his experience with Los Deliveristas Unidos (“Delivery Workers United”), an organizing collective created by the Worker’s Justice Project, has bolstered his beliefs in workers’ rights. 

“Every worker,” Wood says, ?“should have a union, have a group of advocates for them, and should be in an industry that’s regulated.”

This blog post was printed at In These Times on April 21, 2022.

About the Author: Maggie Duffy is a Brooklyn-based writer and an In These Times editorial intern. She is a graduate of Occidental College where she earned a degree in sociology. She most recently worked as a researcher for American Friends Service Committee. 


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Here’s What’s in the New Bill Jointly Backed by Uber and the Teamsters in Washington State

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Uber’s lobbyists, after clinching an agreement with UFCW Canada to launch a charm offensive at the Ontario provincial government for employee-like benefits on behalf of an estimated 100,00 drivers, weren’t done hobnobbing with unions.

Next up, the Teamsters in Washington state are working on a deal with Uber and Lyft.

The legislation would give ride-hail workers new benefits—sick pay, a process to appeal deactivations, protections against retaliation, and workers’ compensation—in exchange for codifying their status as independent contractors rather than employees, and preempting cities from regulating the rideshare companies as Seattle has done.

Washington lawmakers passed the bill, HB 2076, backed by Teamsters Local 117,
with 55 yeas to 42 nays on February 23. The Senate will hold a public hearing February 26.

“HB 2076 exemplifies Washington State’s spirit of leadership and innovation,” Teamsters Local 117 Vice President Brenda Wiest wrote to House representatives February 22 in an email obtained by Labor Notes. “This bill is supported by both Uber and Lyft, as well as the Teamsters, their affiliated Drivers Union, and dozens of labor and community-based organizations across the state. Moreover, it is backed by the people who matter most—the drivers themselves.”

The Teamsters international declined to comment on the legislation.

FLASHPOINT OF DEBATE

It’s a flashpoint of debate in the labor movement: should unions keep fighting for employee status for gig workers, or cut a deal to head off worse odds down the road? After all, unions and drivers are squaring off against Uber and Lyft, who with their bottomless pits of cash forced their way in California in a 2020 ballot initiative, Prop 22.

The companies have made explicit the threat that, if they don’t get this legislative compromise, they will pursue a ballot initiative in Washington. Lyft has put $2 million into a newly formed political action committee Washington Coalition for Independent Work with clones in New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. It also has the backing of Instacart, DoorDash, and Uber, which have committed to contribute to the PAC.

What’s curious about this bill is that it has the backing of Teamsters Local 117 and its affiliate Drivers Union, which previously supported efforts to boost gig worker protections. Drivers Union members said the rationale for throwing their support behind a legislative deal with Uber and Lyft is the ballot initiative threat.

“They’re also holding the gun at our heads with the possibility of an initiative,” said Don Creery, 68, a ridehail driver since 2013 and a board member of the Drivers Union. “They spent $200 million on California. It comes down to the reality that we don’t have the money to buy TV ads. They do. They will misinform the public with a barrage of TV ads, so we will lose an initiative. We could lose everything.”

Jake Laundry, 29, has been an Uber driver since 2015; he is a member of both the Drivers Union and IATSE Local 15, where he is an audiovisual worker. He considers himself a Teamster and didn’t want to say anything that would jeopardize the union. But he’s heard that pitch about the initiative threat too many times. Laundry views this bill as making “a deal with the devil.”

“It’s great you have a wage floor and then will improve wage conditions in outlying areas [outside] of Seattle,” he said. “But this contractor relationship also locks in a sort of technocratic feudalism.”

Creery has no qualms with contractor status. “I’m not really concerned about us not being designated as employees,” he said. “In our union, we abandoned that seven years ago, eight years ago. We can be independent contractors and get rights. These are laws that can be changed by us, and we did.”

The Drivers Union’s biggest victories, though, were won at the city of Seattle—and this bill would put an end to that by reserving the regulation of rideshare companies to the state.

“Now you’re just kind of at the whim of the state legislature, which swings really moderate,” Laundry said. “Here in Washington, we have crazy secessionists that want a holy war. We’re not gonna get any labor victories out of them.”

PAY RAISES

What Creery feels “conflicted” about is the pay raises in the bill. “If you’re a Tacoma driver, it’s really outstanding pay rates,” he said. Currently, “once you leave Seattle city limits, our pay drops by 40 percent.” Drivers in Tacoma, who now get 80 cents a mile, would increase to $1.17.

Waiting time and travel miles without a passenger in the car would be uncompensated, though, and the base fare would be between $3 and $5.17 per trip. “To pay one of us $3 is class warfare,” said Creery.

The bill establishes two tiers of pay. For trips originating in cities with more than 600,000 people (Seattle), the rate would be $1.38 per mile driven with a passenger in the car and 59 cents per minute. Those figures are based on Seattle’s Fair Pay Law, which took effect January 1, 2022. Elsewhere, the rate would be $1.17 per passenger mile and 34 cents a minute.

Yearly pay increases based on the cost of living would begin September 30, 2022.

Mohamed Diallo, 33, has been driving for Lyft and Uber since 2017. He’s in favor of the legislation because his rent in Kent has skyrocketed. He also wants to extend the benefits like sick pay and the right to contest deactivations through an appeals process beyond Seattle to Kent and other parts of Washington state.

He said other drivers from his native Guinea are also in favor of the bill, describing it as “wonderful news.”

“Last year, my two-bedroom used to be $1,500,” Diallo said. “Today I talked to my leasing office because my lease is going to be over and I have to sign a new one. It’s $2,030.” He also feels the financial strain at the gas pump; he’s averaging $180-$200 to fill the tank of his Toyota Highlander SUV. He says the new legislation will increase his average earnings from about 90 cents per mile in Kent to $1.17, and spare him the commute into Seattle where the rates are higher.

Diallo works six days a week, 12-hour shifts, with only Tuesdays off. He has two young children, a boy of six months and a two-year-old girl. “The most important thing about the bill is I will get more money to put food on the table,” he said.

Uber touts “flexibility” as a perk it offers to drivers. But “I don’t think flexibility is as important for the guys with the Teamsters,” said Laundry, who connected me with Diallo. “They’re driving 70, 80 hours a week. They’re just scrambling to support their families. They’re working their tails off, so they don’t really have a flexible life.”

THE BEST WE CAN GET?

Why would any union agree to be involved in these compromise bills? The argument goes that we’re not going to win on employee status, plus there are innumerable hurdles to organizing gig workers at scale… so creating a third category, an independent contractor with at least some labor rights, is the best deal the labor movement can get.

Nicole Moore from Rideshare Drivers United in California finds a contradiction in that position. “There’s more demand for unions, a better minimum wage, and labor rights,” she said. “Compromise is absolutely the wrong direction. This is not to say we can’t get legislation on the road to employee status—but not at the cost of our labor rights.”

The app-based companies and their labor collaborators tout the notion of creating “portable benefits” that follow you from gig to gig. But “labor rights are portable benefits,” Moore said. “I have my rights to unemployment. If I get hurt on the job, I have portable benefits to workers’ compensation. Anything other than that is taking some people completely out of the picture.”

For Moore, the defeatist attitude that employee status isn’t winnable harks back to the National Labor Relations Act’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers. Like those workforces, the gig workforce is largely people of color and immigrants.

A personal vehicle makes for a very isolated and lonely workplace, which is why most gig workers’ organizing kicks off online. “We know each other in the parking lot of the airports,” Moore said. “We know each other online, because we find Facebook pages and Reddit in order to share information and understand. We are ready to organize.”

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

In the breezy language of Wiest’s email to state representatives, the benefits of the deal appear excellent. But not all that shines is gold. It can be a spear.

One of the sharpest daggers in the bill is preemption—giving the state government the exclusive power to regulate rideshare companies, so that Seattle could no longer enact wage increases or new rules about drivers’ working conditions.

“The Teamsters-affiliated Drivers Union has already won the nation’s leading labor standards for Uber and Lyft drivers at the local level in Seattle,” said Kerry Harwin, communications director for the Drivers Union, in a statement to Labor Notes. “Seattle’s first-in-the-nation protections have demonstrated a meaningful impact for Uber and Lyft drivers, who enjoy the highest minimum wage in the country, the nation’s first paid-sick days for gig workers during the pandemic, and the country’s only legal protections against unfair deactivations.”

Seattle’s City Council passed the Gig Worker Paid Sick and Safe Time ordinance, backed by Teamsters Local 117, in June 2020. Since then the city’s Office of Labor Standards has reached a $3.4 million settlement for violation of the policy with Uber and a $1 million settlement with the online food delivery company PostMates. It also reached a $350,000 settlement with DoorDash and PostMates in violation of a pandemic-related hazard pay law for food delivery workers; each company had to pay restitution to about 3,000 workers.

In September 2020, Seattle hiked the minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers to $16.39 per hour (it’s now $17.27) and required the ridehail companies to pay drivers at least 56 cents per minute drivers are traveling to pick up a passenger or carrying one; it also covers driver expenses.

For Uber and Lyft, this combination of a progressive city council and workers organizing was too much. Their business model depends on misclassification, and on state government footing the bill for benefits that employers are traditionally on the hook to provide. So they went to the legislature.

NO BENEFITS DURING ROVING TIME

In the email to state representatives, Wiest said the bill would provide rideshare drivers with workers’ compensation under the “same robust state-run program that protects employees in Washington State.”

But in fact, workers’ comp would only be in effect when a driver is on the way to pick up a passenger or actually has a passenger in the car; the legislation describes these activities as “dispatch platform time” and “passenger platform time” respectively.

This leaves workers vulnerable if they get injured between fares, while they are roving and awaiting a new trip request. A 2020 UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment study estimated this cruising without a passenger is 35 percent of their work time. This method is also used to calculate the premiums that Lyft and Uber will pay into state coffers for workers’ comp.

Weist championed the paid sick protections, which she said would be “at the same accrual rates for all workers.”

But paid sick leave would not accrue at the same rates for independent contractors as it does for employees. Again, it would exclude the time drivers are waiting for passengers, and in this case also the time they drive to fetch them after being pinged for a trip. Drivers would only earn paid sick time when a passenger is in the car, which the same study estimated to be roughly 53 percent of their work time. As a result, drivers will have to work twice as long as other workers to qualify for the same amount of time off.

“We are frontline workers—providing trips to nurses and other essential workers during the pandemic,” said Ahmed Farah, a Drivers Union member who has driven for Uber and Lyft since 2016, in an emailed statement. “As a father of three, paid sick days is a very important protection when my kids get sick.”

Drivers would be eligible for unpaid sick leave after working for 90 days for a ridehail app.

Paid family leave was included in an earlier draft of the bill, but was scrapped from the final legislation. Weist’s email doesn’t mention the change, but Drivers Union staff continue promoting the idea that it is in the current bill.

Unemployment insurance will be studied by a “work group of stakeholders” drawn from labor and the gig industry with the deadline of producing a report by December 1, 2022.

‘DRIVER RESOURCE CENTER’

Protection from retaliation and an appeals process to negotiate driver deactivations are critically important for drivers. How would the legislation address this? It would provide a direct line of funding for the Drivers Union, which presumably meets the criteria in the legislation to serve as a “driver resource center.” (It may be the only group to qualify, since the bill says such a group must be able to demonstrate that it has past experience representing rideshare drivers and “providing culturally competent driver representation services.”)

A driver resource center’s services will be paid through a 15-cent per-trip surcharge on riders, with dues membership modeled after the Independent Drivers’ Guild (IDG) in New York City, a Machinists-affiliated company union of Lyft and Uber drivers that receives an undisclosed amount of funding from both companies.

And what would it do? The legislation makes scant mention of what services drivers would receive from the resource center. Asked about that, Harwin, the spokesperson for the Drivers Union, didn’t elaborate much: “It will provide support services to drivers, including representation” when faced with a deactivation.

??The state treasury would oversee the fund. The state director of the Department of Labor would choose the driver resource center through what the bill describes as a “competitive process.” Workers won’t have a say in choosing the non-profit organization, nor in how the money is spent.

The legislation also says the “driver resource center may not be funded, excessively influenced, or controlled by a transportation network company.”

Joe DeManuelle-Hall wrote last year when a similar draft legislation was floated in New York that at a 10-cent surcharge, a similar resource center would have netted $75,000 per day—a staggering $27.5 million per year, based on a calculation of 750,000 rides daily in New York City shortly before the pandemic.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The idea of bringing an IDG-like deal to the West Coast can be traced back to disgraced ex-Teamsters leader Rome Aloise.

Aloise, once a vice president of the international union, was eventually found guilty of taking gifts from employers, negotiating a sham contract, and using union resources to rig a local union election—and then of running Local 853 and Northern California’s Joint Council 7 while he was suspended from the union for these offenses. He has been “permanently barred from the Teamsters” and “permanently enjoined from participating in union affairs” effective January 31, 2022.

But back in 2018, Aloise was still in power and trying to cut a deal with Lyft and Uber. Among the many exhibits and court documents compiled when he was brought up on internal union charges were various emails from that fall discussing plans (never realized) to create employer-linked driver guilds in Seattle and San Francisco.

Aloise proposed that Seattle’s Teamsters Local 117 and the Workers Benefit Fund, which has ties to Uber and Lyft, should jointly “support the creation of legislation and a guild infrastructure for Seattle Drivers.” In a document shared with WBF CEO Benjamin Geyerhahn, Aloise wrote: “WBF will provide with [sic] polling, legislative support, legal support, its expertise and its relationships with Uber and Lyft. This support includes financial support for these items carrying through until legislation is passed. In exchange, it receives the Teamsters full support and exclusive right to provide benefits to the Seattle drivers…”

In a revealing email to a few other California Teamsters leaders on November 21, 2018, Aloise wrote: “Maybe it is worth talking about setting up a Driver’s Guild in SF, and then of course expanding it at a later date… In NY, a lot of money is pouring into the Guild and back to the Machinists who were behind the establishment of the Guild.”

One year later, he wrote on February 1, 2019: “[Local] 117 heavily involved and substantial negotiations this coming week with both companies. The issue, of course, is how to stop any legislation which would give our core industries any loop hole [sic] to move into this TNC [Transportation Network Company] type model, while allowing Lyft and Uber to operate with some type of meaningful representation for the drivers.”

In 2018, he exchanged emails with former Service Employees president Andy Stern about the need to protect “core industries” for the Teamsters– package delivery and freight transportation– in order to enter into an agreement with Uber. “For any of this to get any traction in California, it will need to have some language about staying out of certain functions, which are core industries to the Teamsters, i.e.; such as package delivery, freight transportation, etc. If there is to be a carve out of their ‘industry,’ this will be essential, and perhaps a model for the other companies to deal with the ramifications of the Dynamix decision.” (At the time, the state’s Supreme Court in its Dynamix decision ruled against misclassification, creating a framework for standards to determine employee status.)

Last-mile transportation and delivery has gigified rapidly since 2018. Think: Uber Freight and Uber Eats. In September of 2020, United Parcel acquired Roadie, a crowd-sourced, same-day delivery company. FedEx bought Shoprunner. Amazon, Walmart, and Target have adopted and expanded their speedy gig-delivery business models to everything from yoga pants and furniture to pet food.

“Online competitors are shipping it from a distribution center going across multiple zones where we’re taking it in the back of a DoorDasher’s car for the same cost as if it was a tennis ball, delivering it the same day, and delivering it at lower cost,” said Petco CEO Ron Coughlin in a March 2021 interview.

What’s to protect UPS Teamsters from their work shifting to Roadie?

Update: this article has been updated to clarify that paid family and medical leave aren’t included in the current bill. But Weist and Drivers Union staff continue to promote the perks of the bill with those as included benefits. It has also been updated to reflect what the passage of the bill would mean for Teamsters in freight and transportation. —Editors

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on February 25, 2022

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Gig workers could end up losers in Covid relief bill

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Airbnb, Etsy and other pillars of the gig economy are shaping up to be rare losers in Democrats’ coronavirus relief package.

Buried in the legislation are provisions that will require them to provide a lot more information to the IRS about the money millions of people earn through their platforms, which is likely to bring in billions of dollars more in federal taxes.

That will generate cash Democrats can use to reduce the total cost of their stimulus plan.

But the industry says it’s getting ambushed, complaining it didn’t even know lawmakers were planning the tax crackdown until shortly before it was approved last week by the House. Company officials worry that asking people for their Social Security numbers — which the companies will need to produce the tax documents — and raising the specter of the IRS will scare many away from their platforms.

“We’re concerned that the proposal could unintentionally dissuade many casual and one-time sellers, who could be forced to share their Social Security number with online platforms before listing anything for sale,” said a spokesperson for Etsy. That could “turn away would-be entrepreneurs at a time when many desperately need the extra income.”

It’s not entirely clear who pushed for the provisions, though efforts to require more reporting by the industry aren’t new. A spokesperson for the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

The wrinkle comes as Senate Democrats debate the stimulus plan, which lawmakers aimed to get to President Joe Biden’s desk by March 14, when expanded jobless benefits expire. Much of the focus on the stimulus has been on its winners, though there would be a few losers as well.

For those in the sharing economy, the issue is provisions that would dramatically reduce the threshold at which companies like eBay, GrubHub, Doordash and others would have to report to the IRS the earnings of people who use their platforms to make money. The users would also have to be given the information.

Currently, that’s only necessary when someone earns more than $20,000 through at least 200 transactions. Democrats would drop that to anyone earning more than $600, regardless of the number of transactions.

That’s projected to generate a lot of money — $8.4 billion over the next decade, according to an official forecast — because people are more likely to pay taxes on their earnings when they know someone else is telling the IRS how much they made.

Unlike more traditional jobs, there is relatively little independent reporting of how much people in the gig economy earn. Many in service-related businesses are treated by their employers as contractors, for example, so they may not be having taxes withheld from their pay. They’re supposed to instead be paying estimated taxes each quarter.

Others, like people selling goods on eBay, Etsy or Facebook, are just average people trying to make some extra cash.

Many may not track how much they’ve earned or realize that it’s subject to tax, in part because they don’t make enough to trigger the current income reporting requirements, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a report last year.

“Platform workers may not receive information on their earnings, creating compliance challenges for them and enforcement challenges for IRS,” GAO said.

That makes the area ripe for tax cheating.

The issue has been on lawmakers’ radar for several years, though much of the focus had been on a competing proposal by Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). He has a more sweeping plan that would deal with things like worker classification rules while also imposing tougher income-reporting requirements, although not as stringent as Democrats are proposing.

Industry lobbyists say they did not anticipate Democrats swiping Thune’s idea and repurposing it for their coronavirus measure.

Said Thune: “I will continue to support a comprehensive approach to truly help workers in the gig economy.”

Proposals to raise money via so-called third-party reporting have long been popular with lawmakers searching for cash because they generate revenue but are neither tax increases nor spending cuts. And the $8.4 billion the gig worker proposal raises helps keep Democrats within their $1.9 trillion budget for the coronavirus relief.

The industry says it does not condone tax cheating. But it says Democrats’ reporting threshold is too low and would affect too many people who only sometimes use their platforms.

The companies say the tax requirements may come as a surprise to many, who might not understand what is being reported. The IRS form the companies would use — the 1099K — would report the gross amount of money someone has earned.

That isn’t necessarily what they’d have to pay tax on, though. The tax would only apply to their profits, after their own costs or expenses are deducted.

So if someone sold a bike on eBay for $800, for example, they’d get a form showing that. But if they had originally paid $1,000 for the bike, they likely wouldn’t owe the IRS.

“This is not about skirting tax obligations,” said Katie Vlietstra, vice president for government relations and public affairs at the National Association for the Self-Employed.

“A lot of people are cobbling together different ways to make it to the next paycheck,” she said.

“And this is going to be whiplash for a whole community of people.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Faler is senior tax reporter at Politico. Before coming to Politico in 2013, he was a congressional reporter at Bloomberg News. Before that, he was an assistant to the late, great David Broder at the Washington Post.


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Surveillance, Stress, and No Bathrooms: Life as an Amazon Driver

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Part 2 of a series on Amazon’s delivery drivers. Part 1, “Building Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers,” is here.

The Amazonification of logistics has created a new group of highly exploited workers: delivery drivers. Amazon itself increasingly relies on an expanding network of subcontracted drivers and independent contractors to deliver packages to customers’ doors.

The working conditions facing Amazon’s last-mile drivers are defined by a frantic pace, low wages, and relentless pressure to meet tight delivery deadlines. Workers of color and immigrants are overrepresented, as they are in all the lowest-paying segments of last-mile logistics. 

When an Amazon Prime member orders an item, the first step in the delivery process begins at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, where the item is picked by a worker and put into a box, and an address label is created.

From there, the package is typically sent to an Amazon Sortation Center, where it is sorted. Then it’s sent either to the post office or, increasingly, to an Amazon Delivery Center, where Amazon’s subcontracted Delivery Service Provider (DSP) drivers pick up their routes.

Each Amazon Delivery Center typically contracts with 12–20 DSPs. Most of the drivers I spoke with said they usually have the same daily route. As the workday starts at the delivery center, hundreds of drivers pick up their “racks”: pallets of Prime packages. Any package that arrives at a delivery center must be delivered that day.

‘WATCHING ME DRIVE’

To get a sense of what work is like for these subcontracted drivers, I accompanied 30-year-old Miguel on some of his shifts throughout the Los Angeles region. Miguel is an undocumented immigrant; he was born in Mexico and migrated to the U.S. as a baby in the early 1990s. He grew up in L.A. and worked in fast food for 10 years before becoming a delivery driver.

Miguel typically works four 10-hour shifts each week, with an occasional opportunity for an extra day of overtime. He earns $15.50 per hour and receives no health benefits. While Amazon is not technically his employer, Miguel exclusively delivers Amazon Prime packages.

Miguel’s shift starts at 7:30 a.m., when he picks up his “bag.” A driver’s bag contains the keys to the delivery van and an Amazon “Rabbit” delivery device.

The Rabbit is an Android smartphone, which tracks the driver’s movements in real time and dictates each step of the delivery route. It provides information on each delivery, access codes to enter apartment buildings, and notes on where to leave packages.

The Rabbit also gives the driver information about the Prime customer (name, address, phone number) and the size of each package. As soon as a package is delivered, the driver must take a picture to prove it.

“The Rabbit stresses me out,” Miguel said. “I’m constantly staring at it and thinking someone at Amazon is constantly watching me drive.”

Once Miguel finds his van in the parking lot, he proceeds to the Amazon Delivery Center and waits for his rack. There’s a long line of other DSP drivers also waiting. Each rack has between 225 and 350 packages.

On one particular day I joined him, Miguel’s rack contained 227 packages, amounting to 161 stops. A driver typically puts all the small envelopes and packages up front in the cab and leaves the large boxes in the rear of the van. Since I was riding in the front seat, I had to hold dozens of small packages on my lap.

If drivers finish their shifts early, the DSP may assign them as “rescue drivers” to assist others who have fallen behind on their delivery routes.

CONSTANTLY RUSHING

“One thing that can be stressful is that my boss always knows exactly where I am because of the Rabbit,” Miguel told me. “So if I am behind on my route they tell me about it… They call me on the radio and tell me to hurry up.

“On most days, I don’t even have time to take a full lunch break, so I just go to a drive-through. And if I’m lucky I’ll just eat in the van as I am working… You are constantly rushing. You can’t find parking, or the Rabbit gets screwed up…

“I’ve also been accused of stealing packages, especially in rich white neighborhoods. They see a Hispanic driving around and think I am a package thief. My [company] will soon be giving us Amazon-branded uniforms and blue Amazon vans, which I’m happy about because that will help people realize that I am not a porch pirate…

“Also, I wish we got paid more. I think we deserve it. I work really hard and I don’t have health benefits, so if I get sick or hurt, I have to pay out of pocket.”

Miguel and many other drivers I interviewed emphasized that it is Amazon, not the DSPs, that needs to pay better wages.

Drivers described a physically demanding work environment. They feel pressured to drive at dangerous speeds, blow stop signs, and skip breaks and meals to meet the tight deadlines. Traffic and congestion stress them out. They also reported safety violations, wage theft, intimidation, favoritism, and a lack of overtime pay.

“I lost over 30 pounds since I started this job,” said Rogelio, a 26-year-old Latino driver. “This job takes a lot of running… I twisted my ankle stepping off a curb a couple months ago… it really slowed me down. I had to keep working though, but it was really swollen.”

Rogelio told me that he only stops to use the bathroom once per shift, usually at the same public toilet near a park along his route. “During Prime week,” Rogelio said, “I was way behind on my route. All I ate that day was a granola bar and an apple—for almost 11 hours! I hate Prime Day.”

‘ONE PACKAGE COST ME $150’

When a DSP driver fails to deliver a package, or even when a package is stolen from the doorstep of a customer’s home, Amazon contacts the DSP with what drivers call a “concession.”

Concessions occur when Amazon Prime members submit a complaint to Amazon over a missed delivery. When a concession is issued, the individual driver is reprimanded by a superior.

Alex is a 37-year-old Latino driver who has been working for his DSP for 10 months. He told me, “Amazon put a concession on me a few months after I started. My boss called me in, and he asked why I didn’t take a picture of the package that disappeared. I told him that I did, but for some reason it didn’t get logged by the Rabbit. I was written up [by my boss] and he took away one of my shifts that week as punishment. That one package cost me 150 bucks.

“For the next few weeks, my boss tightened the screws on me… He was always on me, calling and texting me to hurry up… When an item gets stolen, they blame the drivers.”

“Here’s the thing,” Justin, a Filipino driver, told me. “I’m 42 years old. I have four kids and I make $15 an hour. I get about $1,250 every two weeks. That’s not enough to make it out here in LA. If I didn’t have a family, I’d leave this area.

“I basically do the same work as a UPS driver, but those guys get paid double what I earn, at least. We don’t have representation with any union. So that’s why I take as much overtime as possible, my boss knows I’ll take any extra work—but it’s a really tiring job at times.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on February 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a sociology professor at Cal State-Long Beach. He is the co-editor, with Ellen Reese, of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2020). This piece is an edited excerpt from the book. 


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Amazon to pay huge settlement in wage theft case

This week in “Amazon is scum” news, on Tuesday the company reached a $61.7 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over a longstanding practice of stealing tips from delivery drivers.

Drivers for Amazon Flex were recruited with the promise of $18 to $25 an hour plus customer tips, and that’s how it worked in 2015 and 2016. But then Amazon started taking some customer tips, while telling the drivers that that wasn’t happening. According to the FTC, “In late 2016, the FTC alleges, Amazon shifted from paying drivers the promised rate of $18–25 per hour plus the full amount of customer tips to paying drivers a lower hourly rate, a shift that it did not disclose to drivers. Amazon used the customer tips to make up the difference between the new lower hourly rate and the promised rate. This resulted in drivers’ being shorted more than $61.7 million in tips.”

This wasn’t innocent and it wasn’t out in the open. Amazon “then intentionally failed to notify drivers of the changes to its pay plan and even took steps to make the changes obscure to drivers.”

Such wage theft and sneaky changes to payment practices are common at gig economy companies. DoorDash similarly took tips from drivers and used them to cover the drivers’ base pay and was forced by an outcry to change its practices. Other companies have repeatedly changed algorithms for pay, insisting to workers that it wasn’t a pay cut—inevitably a lie.

Drivers who were stiffed should eventually get the money Amazon owes them, but it may take some time. “An FTC spokesperson said Amazon Flex drivers who think they may have been impacted should sign up for email updates here,” Vox reports. “The settlement also prohibits Amazon from misrepresenting driver earnings and tips, and requires the company to notify drivers before making any future changes to how it handles tips.”

”Rather than passing along 100% of customers’ tips to drivers, as it had promised to do, Amazon used the money itself,” Daniel Kaufman, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “Our action today returns to drivers the tens of millions of dollars in tips that Amazon misappropriated, and requires Amazon to get drivers’ permission before changing its treatment of tips in the future.”

“The @FTC has long been lax when it comes to abuses in the gig economy and anticompetitive conduct targeting workers,” Rohit Chopra, the FTC commissioner who is President Biden’s nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tweeted. “The agency’s order against @Amazon will provide restitution to the tech giant’s driver victims. I hope it also turns the page on the FTC’s era of inaction.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.

Building Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers

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While millions have lost their jobs and thousands of small businesses have shut their doors, at least one company has thrived during the pandemic: Amazon. The e-commerce behemoth controls 40 percent of online sales and has amassed record profits. The net worth of founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has jumped to $186 billion, up more than $70 billion since March. 

Amazon’s continued growth and dominance in online retailing are due to its mastery of logistics—including its investment in building the world’s largest contingent (that is, not made up of permanent employees) last-mile delivery network, with over 500,000 contracted drivers globally. 

Last-mile logistics workers complete the final steps of delivery to a consumer’s home (or a neighborhood Amazon locker). While most packages in the U.S. are still delivered by the big four—UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the Postal Service (USPS)—Amazon is increasingly building out its own delivery network, posing a major threat to these firms and to working conditions in the industry. 

THE LAST-MILE PROBLEM

In contrast to big-box retailers that rely heavily on warehouse workers hired through temp agencies, Amazon directly employs hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers around the world (though it still regularly hires temps during peak periods). 

However, in the last-mile delivery sector, Amazon has taken a different approach: expanding its network of contingent and subcontracted drivers.

The last mile is one of most labor-intensive components of the e-commerce supply chain. Nearly one-third of the total cost of shipping goods occurs here. Logistics experts have described the challenges facing e-commerce firms as “the last-mile problem,” since the final leg of delivery usually involves multiple stops with small packages.

To decrease its dependence on the big four (including the unionized UPS and USPS), Amazon has invested in parcel delivery. By 2019, around half of Amazon Prime packages in the U.S. were delivered by subcontractors or contingent workers.

AN UBER FOR PACKAGES

Amazon Flex drivers are gig workers treated as independent contractors, similar to Uber drivers. They are paid per completion of a delivery route, not by the hour. Flex drivers must provide their own vehicles or rent delivery vans.

Independent contractors lack the legal rights of employees to unionize and enforce minimum wage protections. In 2019, a group of Amazon Flex Drivers based in California sued Amazon, claiming that the company had intentionally misclassified Flex drivers as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime and employee benefits.

In addition to Flex, the company is increasingly relying on its Delivery Service Partners program, rolled out in 2018. DSPs are small subcontracted parcel delivery firms with 20–40 delivery vans apiece—considered “independent” of Amazon, though they exclusively deliver packages for Amazon Prime customers.

SUBCONTRACTED DRIVERS

DSP fleets are limited to 40 vans to complicate unionization efforts and to increase Amazon’s flexibility and power over the price paid per delivery. Limiting their size makes it difficult for these small firms to gain leverage against Amazon. Each DSP manages between 40 and 100 employees.

I live in Southern California, one of Amazon’s largest markets in the world. For years, it was most common here to see white unmarked delivery vans with workers wearing reflective vests hustling Amazon Prime packages through the streets. Today, however, most DSPs lease grey-blue Amazon-branded delivery vans and Amazon uniforms for their drivers. And yet, despite their appearance, these subcontracted delivery drivers do not formally work for Amazon.

The majority of these drivers in Southern California work eight- to 10-hour shifts and earn about $15 per hour. Many do not receive health insurance benefits. 

These workers face extreme pressure to meet the demands of Amazon’s tight delivery terms. During peak holiday periods, the number of deliveries can reach as high as 400 per shift. Drivers complain of unpaid overtime, poor working conditions, and unrealistic expectations and pressures set by Amazon.

Between Flex and the DSPs, Amazon’s expanding market power has introduced new levels of exploitation for thousands of delivery drivers, many of them workers of color and immigrants. 

SPEED-UP AND SURVEILLANCE

Walmart became the world’s largest corporation by developing a sophisticated logistics management program, which reduced inefficiencies in the movement of consumer goods across thousands of miles.

However, the supply-chain management approach that Walmart perfected in the big-box era has not adapted well to the rapid changes brought on by the growth of e-commerce.

Big-box retailers have struggled to compete because their infrastructure was built to accommodate long-distance shipping. E-commerce depends upon a more localized and fragmented distribution and delivery system. 

Consumers demand increasingly fast delivery to their homes; the Amazon Prime program has driven further consumer demand for expedited free shipping. All this creates pressure on workers in both warehousing and last-mile delivery to speed up.

Connected to this speed-up are technologies that track workers’ movements and speed in real time. Amazon is the industry leader in worker surveillance across the global supply chain.

Amazon’s logistics infrastructure relies upon this exploitation and hyper-surveillance of both warehouse workers and contracted delivery drivers. In global labor organizing, joining these two groups together will be critical to worker power.

SQUEEZING THE COMPETITION

To compete with Amazon, FedEx has begun to tap into the e-commerce market by working with hybrid retailers (big-box stores that combine offline and online sales) that offer in-store pickup.

According to FedEx, approximately half of all online purchases occur after 4 p.m. This prompted the company to roll out a new late-night shipping option, giving retailers the opportunity to offer next-day shipping on orders placed as late as midnight. 

FedEx Express drivers pick up the packages from retailers as late as 2 a.m. and take them to sorting hubs. Deliveries can occur as soon as the next day within the local market, and two days for destinations farther away.

The late-night shipping program began in 2017 as a pilot in Los Angeles. Since then it has entered 100 local markets. Using the physical infrastructure of big-box retail outlets as a point of competitive advantage, FedEx has increased the speed from fulfillment centers to delivery to less than 24 hours. 

Competition between Amazon and hybrid retail firms has fueled a race to capture the last-mile market in other ways, too. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, at a price of $13.7 billion, had less to do with groceries and more to do with increasing its last-mile market share.

By acquiring Whole Foods, Amazon instantly added to its delivery network 440 refrigerated warehouses within 10 miles of 80 percent of the population. Since the acquisition, Amazon Flex drivers routinely use Whole Foods stores to drop off and pick up packages at Amazon lockers. The acquisition also improved Amazon’s last-mile market position in relation to its hybrid retail competitors Walmart and Target.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a sociology professor at Cal State-Long Beach. He is the co-editor, with Ellen Reese, of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2020). This piece is an edited excerpt from the book. Read a review here.


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New York City Drivers Cooperative Aims to Smash Uber’s Exploitative Model

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Ken Lewis grew up on the island of Grena­da, and wit­nessed the pro­gres­sive after­math of its 1979 rev­o­lu­tion. ?“I remem­ber the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives, peo­ple get­ting land, turn­ing places that were bar­ren into pro­duc­tive places,” he says. That image stayed with him after he moved to New York City for grad school and start­ed dri­ving a taxi on the side. Now, sev­er­al decades lat­er, Lewis is final­ly get­ting a chance to put the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives into prac­tice, in ser­vice of the dri­vers he worked with for so long. 

He is one of three cofounders of The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive (TDC), which aims to real­ize a long-held dream of social­ly con­scious New York­ers in a hur­ry: a rideshar­ing app that you can feel good about. When it rolls out to the pub­lic ear­ly next year, TDC will become New York City’s first work­er-owned rideshar­ing plat­form?—?owned by the dri­vers them­selves, rather than by big investors and exec­u­tives. Its founders’ brazen idea is that TDC can actu­al­ly gain a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage over Uber and Lyft?—?sav­ing mon­ey and fun­nel­ing those sav­ings back to dri­vers?—?by doing away with the most exploita­tive prac­tices of that dom­i­nant duop­oly. ?“The way the [Uber] mod­el is orga­nized is extrac­tive. It takes out the mon­ey and doesn’t give back much. Imag­ine a com­pa­ny that doesn’t have any prof­its, but has cre­at­ed bil­lion­aires,” Lewis says. ?“That mon­ey comes from drivers.” 

Erik For­man, a vet­er­an labor activist and orga­niz­er, became inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with the dark side of that extrac­tive mod­el when he was work­ing as a staff mem­ber at the Inde­pen­dent Dri­vers Guild, a union-affil­i­at­ed group that orga­nizes rideshare dri­vers in New York. Com­pa­nies that oper­ate in the indus­try reg­u­lar­ly push much of the risk of employ­ment onto the dri­vers by clas­si­fy­ing them as ?“inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” rather than employ­ees. But they also push the costs of the job onto the work­ers, forc­ing them to pay for their own car and main­te­nance (not to men­tion things like health­care ben­e­fits). Instead of being paid to work, in oth­er words, rideshar­ing apps?—?like oth­er ?“gig econ­o­my” com­pa­nies?—?make peo­ple pay in order to work. When Uber launched in New York City in 2011, it was an attrac­tive alter­na­tive for many who had pre­vi­ous­ly been taxi dri­vers, with decent pay and lit­tle reg­u­la­tion. But in sub­se­quent years, Uber cut pay rates while the num­ber of dri­vers rose, leav­ing many who had tak­en out loans to buy cars for their job strug­gling to meet their debt oblig­a­tions and earn a living. 

For­man, who has been through bit­ter union bat­tles with big com­pa­nies, real­ized that for the same amount of effort, work­ers could prob­a­bly start their own ven­ture?—?lead­ing him to help cofound the rideshar­ing coop. ?“The indus­try seems unique­ly in need of a sys­tem change based on work­er own­er­ship,” he says. “[TDC] is not anoth­er com­pa­ny try­ing to get mon­ey out of dri­vers. It’s the opposite.”

In fact, the lack of exploita­tion is also The Dri­vers Cooperative’s finan­cial advan­tage. For one thing, the bil­lions of dol­lars that Uber has spent on mar­ket­ing the con­cept of rideshar­ing mean that TDC has lit­tle need for big ad bud­gets. Their plan is to grow by build­ing a net­work of dri­vers, using press and word of mouth. And while Uber and Lyft take around a quar­ter of the mon­ey from each trip (some of it to pay for all that mar­ket­ing), the coop plans to take only 15%. By com­bin­ing the pur­chas­ing pow­er of all the mem­bers, they hope to low­er expens­es on costs like gas and insur­ance?—?expens­es that Uber and Lyft dri­vers must han­dle on their own. They project that this should all add up to 8?–?10% high­er earn­ings for dri­vers on every ride, even while being able to beat their com­peti­tors on fare prices. And if the coop has any prof­its left at the end of the year, they will be paid out to dri­vers as dividends. 

Nobody under­stands the fun­da­men­tal con­trast with Uber’s busi­ness mod­el bet­ter than the third cofounder, Alis­sa Orlan­do?—?because she used to work for Uber. Her stint as the head of Uber’s oper­a­tions in East Africa left her dis­il­lu­sioned with the company’s preda­to­ry con­trol over its dri­vers, embod­ied in the way it uni­lat­er­al­ly cut earn­ings, deac­ti­vat­ed dri­vers alto­geth­er, or sad­dled them with unsus­tain­able car loans, all while claim­ing they were work­ing togeth­er. ?“We called dri­vers part­ners to the extent that it helped us” main­tain favor­able reg­u­la­to­ry sta­tus, Orlan­do says, ?“but they were nev­er partners.” 

Now she is using her expe­ri­ence in ven­ture cap­i­tal and plat­form-based busi­ness­es on behalf of TDC, a scrap­pi­er job that allows her to sleep bet­ter at night. Meet­ing with New York City dri­vers to recruit them into the coop, she’s heard count­less sto­ries of the impos­si­ble choic­es that dri­vers are forced to make?—?like the woman who said that a half dozen pas­sen­gers get into her car with­out a mask every week, but if she objects, they give her a low rat­ing. ?“She has to make this choice between ensur­ing that she’s safe, and the poten­tial threat of deac­ti­va­tion,” Orlan­do says. 

Moham­mad Hossen, a rideshare dri­ver who serves on the coop’s advi­so­ry board, says that the pan­dem­ic has act­ed as an accel­er­ant for the urgency of the new project. His income from dri­ving has fall­en by two-thirds, to just $100 a day, and costs for dis­in­fec­tant and oth­er safe­ty mea­sures?—?paid out of his own pock­et?—?have gone up. The shared predica­ment has allowed him to suc­cess­ful­ly recruit oth­er dri­vers, while they wait for hours at the air­port to get a fare. ?“At the end of the day, you have no life, no secu­ri­ty, no future,” Hossen says. ?“We real­ize that, and we suffer.” 

That could change when dri­vers are also the company’s own­ers. The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive is start­ing a pilot project this month giv­ing rides to work­ers for the Bronx-based Coop­er­a­tive Home Care Asso­ciates, an exam­ple of cross-coop coop­er­a­tion. Founders hope to even­tu­al­ly recruit sev­er­al thou­sand dri­vers in the city, and say recruit­ment is going well. They aim to roll out their own app and open for busi­ness in the first quar­ter of 2021. Their even­tu­al goal, they say, is 10% of the $5 bil­lion New York City rideshare mar­ket, and expan­sion into oth­er cities. For now, though, they will be sat­is­fied with mak­ing a good idea a reality.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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Why companies based on gig work are hurting more than their employees

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Imagine that one of two people will be responsible for your safety. The first receives health and dental benefits, earns more than minimum wage, has clear advancement options within their company, and may even belong to a union. The second has no insurance benefits, works wildly erratic hours, feels no allegiance to their company, and makes less money. Which person would you pick?

The ride-share and micromobility industry is under the microscope for worker violations and safety concerns. Major shared e-scooter companies are facing lawsuits from injured riders. Revel, a moped company operating in New York City, recently reopened operations after a shutdown earlier this year, as complaints about reckless driving and fatalities involving its vehicles mounted. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft face a number of lawsuits related to allegations by passengers of injury, assault, and harassment. A California ballot measure asking voters whether gig workers should count as employees has shown that many Americans are understandably focused on legal and legislative methods to introduce more order and security to the gig economy.

Like most startup industries, the companies providing these new mobility options are scrappy, doing things on the fly, and, at times, operating shortsightedly. This needs to change. As these forms of transportation edge their way to being a supplementary public transportation in a pandemic and beyond, we need to take this responsibility seriously.  After all, when the public gets on a bus, they don’t imagine the bus’s tires were changed not at a company-designated station but in someone’s garage.

Companies themselves would be wise to consider moving away from the gig economy and choosing to play a greater role in ensuring the well-being of their workers because doing so is fundamentally linked to the safety of their consumers and the success of their business.

Outdoor apparel giant Patagonia is famous for taking this approach: With generous time off, on-site child care, and the doors locked on weekends, the company has doubled in size since 2008 and is currently expanding into new markets. Employee turnover is minimal. CEOs and business school professors are increasingly aware that giving workers better wages and benefits also tends to be a recipe for greater profitability and employee retention in the long run.

Of course, any business has to keep an eye on the bottom line, but the damage done from rider injuries and safety lawsuits gives pause—financial pause, especially with potential liabilities tied up. But also pause because if you are hurting your customers, it’s not great for your brand. Investing in worker safety and well-being is more expensive in the short term, certainly. But in the long term, it leads to a more profitable company.

In 2019, my company, Spin, chose to make more than 90% of its workers employees with benefits, as opposed to contractors. In all markets our lowest starting wage is $15 per hour, with incremental increases based on tenure. We did this in part because research has shown that companies with healthy employees have better business performance. Companies with excellent safety, environment, and health programs outperform the S&P 500 by 3%-5%. But also because gig workers are less likely to have been thoroughly trained, more likely to leave for another job, and are often incentivized to cut corners in order to keep a high number of scooters on the streets and boost their own apparent productivity. This is unacceptable. Carefully training and fairly compensating the employees who work to keep our scooters safe for riders ensures that employees face no perverse incentives to rush through their work.

Safety out there also begins with safety in the home base. Designating our workers as employees with benefits—as opposed to contractors—allowed us to put protocols in place in both operations and maintenance and high standards endorsed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This operation would have been much less achievable with an ad hoc staff.

In order for companies in the ride-share and shared mobility space to truly unleash their potential, we must first gain public trust by improving the job we do on safety. Part of this will require that city planners and urban voters reimagine the nature of transportation infrastructure away from cars and toward biking, walking, and scooter transportation. It’s also vital that companies themselves give their workers every reason to do careful, excellent work in maintaining their fleets. As private-public partnerships create another way for people to move around, we need to make sure our workers are as supported as the workers behind transit agencies.

As the pandemic continues to demonstrate, the choice between safety and economic growth is a false reality, and companies should not pose these options against one another. At the end of the day, treating workers well is ultimately the safest choice for both businesses and their customers.

This blog originally appeared at Fast Company on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kyle Rowe is the global head of government partnerships at Spin, the micromobility unit of Ford Mobility.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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Seattle makes DoorDash and Postmates pay out COVID-19 hazard pay

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Seattle really pissed off gig economy companies by imposing $2.50 in hazard pay for each food delivery order during the pandemic. It’s no surprise that some of the big companies stiffed their workers—but there is a surprise here: Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards (OLS) successfully pressured DoorDash and Postmates to do internal audits and pay up.

“After receiving calls from gig workers, OLS contacted the companies, informing them that if the companies resolved issues regarding premium pay and paid workers back pay and interest by a certain date, OLS would forego a formal investigation,” OLS told Eater Seattle. In all, DoorDash paid $111,435 to 2,998 Seattle workers, and Postmates paid $250,515 to 2,975 workers.

”The city is making clear to these multi-billion dollar delivery companies that they’re not above the law,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington and Fair Work Center, said in a statement. “Our worker protections are only as good as our ability to enforce them, and Seattle is demonstrating once again why we’re a national model for enforcing labor standards.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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