Uber, Lyft drivers devastated during COVID-19 pandemic need union

  • Rideshare drivers for Uber, Lyft, and others have been devastated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The shutdown, along with stay-at-home orders issued across the country, has slowed the for-hire vehicle business to a halt.
  • Legislation known as “the Right to Bargain” could finally get drivers the support they need.
  • Aziz Bah is an Uber and Lyft driver in New York City and serves as Organizing Director for the Independent Drivers Guild in New York and New Jersey.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Drivers of New York City’s for-hire vehicles have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And this economic destruction wrought by the virus proves that a fundamental change is needed to fix the relationship between many drivers and the rideshare apps employing them. 

The pandemic has destroyed drivers’ livelihoods

When the nation first learned about the virus, the government moved to slow down and then pause gatherings. Me and my fellow Uber and Lyft drivers all agreed: staying home would save lives.

For many, this meant transitioning from working in an office to working from home or shifting to distance learning. However, drivers who were deemed “essential,” can’t virtually take someone home from the airport

The shutdown of most nonessential business and the stay at home mantra marked the beginning of a very difficult time for rideshare drivers because we didn’t just lose a paycheck, we lost the ability to pay for our car and our insurance. No work means economic ruin. 

It may be easy to forget what it was like in March and April, but for drivers, this was an especially perilous time as a survey conducted by the Independent Drivers Guild in April shows.

The survey, which drew responses from 240 drivers in New York City, showed that as COVID cases were drastically increasing, drivers were not only unprotected, they lacked the ability to access healthcare. 25% of drivers surveyed had a member of their household who had COVID-19 symptoms – which is above New York’s rate at the time (20%). 11% of the drivers surveyed also reported a family member who tested positive. 48% of respondents reported that they would not be able to get the medical care they need.

On top of all this, drivers did not feel safe in their own cars, with 66% saying they did not have the PPE that they needed to work. This meant that during an already anxious time, drivers were working long hours in a constant state of anxiety and fear. 

In April, no one was using Uber or Lyft, and many drivers opted out of driving as well, feeling it was unsafe. Of those who did try to work, drivers reported a decline in earnings from an average of $1,100 per week to $548 per week. 

This incredible and sudden drop-off in revenue resulted in 69% of drivers saying they would not be able to pay their rent or mortgage for April, and 80% reporting that they would not be able to pay in May. On top of all of this, half of the drivers surveyed were seeking help accessing food. Put simply this means that overnight, drivers literally had their livelihoods snatched from them. 

This shocking data begs the question, what can we do to help drivers who were seemingly left out to dry during the height of a global pandemic that destroyed their revenue, ate into their savings, and left them in a position where working was harmful to their health?

Changing the relationship between drivers and rideshare companies

To begin with, us drivers need a comprehensive state legislative approach to protecting our bodies and our livelihood.

Before the pandemic The Independent Drivers Guild laid out an approach that would allow us to collectively bargain with the ride-share companies. The Right to Bargain legislation will open up new economic securities that we currently don’t have.

Drivers coming together to define our industry in terms of wages, benefits, working conditions, and protections, will help to improve the wellbeing of all rideshare drivers. We have seen our industry decimated, but we also see how we can come back stronger.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the differences between workers represented by a union, which can forcefully push for benefits and security, and workers who are on their own without bargaining rights. Unionized workers with a bargaining agreementhad better paid time off policies, benefits and personal protective equipment during this crisis.

However, federal labor law is stacked against worker organizing. That’s why so many workers who wish they had union representation are still going it alone. For workers in the so-called gig economy,  the obstacles to worker power are even larger.

Until federal labor laws can be overhauled, we believe that an organizing model that avoids federal labor law will be more beneficial for worker power. That’s where the states can come in and create new progressive labor laws that put the power in the hands of the workers, not the corporations.

In New York State we had support to pass legislation in the April budget giving gig workers the right to bargain, but that effort was derailed by the pandemic. Now it is time for New York and other worker-friendly states to act to reclaim worker power for workers.

This is the time, during the Great Reset, that we, the drivers, will be able to set a new norm when it comes to working for ride-share companies. Building up our industry through collective action and a collective voice will empower us, so we will no longer be at the mercy of ride-share companies and others.

The Right to Bargain is the portal to a more secure and better future. People will need for-hire vehicle drivers to move them around, and we need a legislative approach that will not end up in years of litigation, but allow for an immediate overhaul of our industry. We need the Right to Bargain to pass, so we can determine our future. 

Driving is already a difficult profession under normal circumstances. Drivers are often more unhealthy and less likely to be insured than the rest of the public. We need the power to stand up for our health and wellbeing. You may not always notice us in the front seat, but we are there and we deserve rights too.

Aziz Bah is an Uber and Lyft driver in New York City and serves as Organizing Director for the Independent Drivers Guild, a Machinists Union affiliate which advocates for more than 200,000 for-hire vehicle drivers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. With the Independent Drivers Guild, Bah has successfully advocated for groundbreaking protections and benefits that have put over $1 billion dollars in the pockets of ride-hail drivers, including the nation’s first minimum wage for app-based drivers in New York City.

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