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Lyft Drivers React To Ride-Hailing Battle In California

A driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his car (Richard Vogel/AP)
A driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his car (Richard Vogel/AP)

Lyft and Uber won an appeal against a ruling that would have forced the ride-hailing companies to classify their workers as employees in California.

The order would have required them to provide health insurance and other full benefits. As it stands, drivers for these companies are classified as independent contractors, which means workers pay for their own expenses.

But the legal fight isn’t over. In November, California residents will vote on Proposition 22, a measure heavily funded by Uber and Lyft that would exempt them from the state law requiring this classification.

Both companies claim that classifying drivers as employees would overturn their business model and increase rates for passengers.

But Cherri Murphy, who has been a Lyft driver in California for about three years, sees the ride-sharing companies’ actions as protecting their bottom lines over workers’ health and wellbeing.

“Lyft and Uber are trying to buy, cheat and steal their way out of responsibility,” she says.

Murphy says she’s against Proposition 22 because the ride-hailing companies are putting their drivers in a tough situation — especially during a pandemic. Lyft and Uber don’t offer their gig workers paid sick time, family leave or personal protective equipment.

She stopped driving for Lyft temporarily back in March because of the risk of potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“There’s nothing about this Proposition 22 that protects my health and well-being not only for myself and for my family, but for the passengers as well,” she says.

Jonathan Panzer of Austin, Texas, who likes working as an independent driver, is closely watching what’s happening in California. Before the pandemic, he worked in the nonprofit sector but also drove Lyft as a means to survive financially, he says. After losing his nonprofit job due to the coronavirus, he now drives full-time to support himself.

He says the situation is challenging for him because driving for Lyft has allowed him flexibility and he would lose “massive amounts of income” if he were classified as a full-time employee. He wants to see an option where drivers who want to benefit from protections can opt in.

Murphy says drivers won’t lose flexibility under Proposition 22 — that’s a false narrative being pushed by the companies.

“There’s nothing in the statute in the state of California that prohibits Lyft and Uber from dismissing a flexible schedule,” she says. “It’s a scare tactic that avoids the fact that if this proposition passes, [drivers] stand to lose at least $500 a week under this law.”

Panzer says while he remains concerned about making his driving schedule work if the law were to change in Texas, driving without protections during the coronavirus pandemic is “a risk.”

“It’s unfortunate that we have to live with that,” he says. “I wish … the leaders at Uber and Lyft would think more about the drivers day-to-day instead of the bottom line.”

Interview Highlights

On the potential passing of Proposition 22 in California and its impacts on other states

Jonathan Panzer: “From my understanding, it won’t impact us directly, at least initially, because Texas law supersedes California. My biggest concern, though, because I was working in the nonprofit sector, but I lost my job because of the coronavirus, I’m very concerned about my ability to make as much as I want to be able to make.

“… And if I was to be made a full-time employee, I would almost guarantee to lose a massive amount of income and I’d be forced to get another job and make less in the long run, ultimately. So it’s a complicated issue, obviously. I want to support as many of my labor friends as possible. But at the end of the day, I personally want to do everything I can to make sure that I’m taken care of while at the same time do what we can do to take care of everyone else.”

On whether there is another path forward

Cherri Murphy: “I don’t see another path for it with Prop 22 when it weakens labor and benefit protections. Zero paid sick days. Zero family leave. Zero workers’ compensation or disability. No cap on medical expenses. No access to PPE. No sanitary facilities. And we are at risk of workplace violence.

“And I want to be clear, there is nothing in the statute that prevents Lyft and Uber from providing that flexibility. As a matter of fact, if this proposition passes, there was a study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center that found that this pay guarantee would amount to about $5.64 an hour for drivers. So I’m with my brother [Jonathan Panzer]. I want to be able to work when I want to work and make the money when I want to make the money. But I also want to be safe about it. And this proposition is not safe.”

On the lack of health protections during COVID-19

Panzer: “I mean, obviously, it’s something that I consider. I think about it every day because I haven’t had a full day off since January. I work weekends. I work eight to 10 hours a day. I have parents who are immunocompromised. So I absolutely see that. And until we get something like ‘Medicare for All,’ which I’m personally hugely supportive of, I need to look out for myself. I take precautions in my car. I mean, I clean the car stringently. I’m always very wary of communicating with passengers, making sure that they wear masks, making sure that if I need PPE that I have enough.”

On what she wants the public to take away from the conversation around Proposition 22

Murphy: “What I want them to take away from this is that there have been drivers who have died as a result of Lyft and Uber’s inability to show up for their workers. There have been drivers who have been symptomatic yet still continue driving because of their fear of financial ruin. And so it’s vital that we treat this proposition as if it’s a public health concern. And that means that we have to vote no on Proposition 22.”

Ciku Theuri produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.