This Uber driver got COVID-19. With Prop 22, he says, 'I have a lot on the line'

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 3 November 2020 14:24 GMT

Leandra Montiel, 34, joins a protest by Uber and Lyft rideshare drivers against California Proposition 22 that would classify app-based drivers as independent contractors and not employees or agents, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Image Caption and Rights Information

'I worked for Uber for six years full-time, sleeping in my car to work long hours. Then I contracted COVID-19. It's time to call me an employee.'

By Avi Asher -Schapiro

Nov 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – On Tuesday, Californians vote on a ballot measure that would exempt ride-hailing firms Uber and Lyft from a law compelling them to reclassify their drivers in the state as employees.

The measure, Prop. 22, could redefine gig work, a key pillar of the U.S. economy with COVID-19 driving up demand for delivery services.

A Reuters analysis found that Uber and Lyft would face over $392 million in annual payroll taxes and workers’ compensation costs if the proposition fails, and they are forced to extend employee status to drivers.

The companies say the majority of drivers do not want to be employees, and work fewer than 25 hours a week.

Uber and other gig firms have spent nearly $200 million to pass Prop. 22, which would extend limited benefits to workers, including a subsidy for drivers to buy private healthcare.

But workers like Orlando Mims, a 50-year-old from Sacramento who’s been driving full-time for Uber for 6 years, worry that without full employee protections like minimum wage guarantees and injury insurance, drivers are primed for exploitation. 

This is his story as told to Avi Asher-Schapiro, Thomson Reuters Foundation Digital Rights correspondent:

   

I started driving in 2014, and at first it was on the weekends, like a vacation from my regular job as a truck driver.

I’d drive down to San Francisco, stay there -- sleep in my car -- Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And I’d work long days, and come back with over a thousand dollars.

When they made cutbacks at my trucking company, I left and I started driving Uber full-time -- as much as 60 or 70-hours-a- week on average.

At first I was making good money.

Then all the sudden they started cutting the rates at Uber; at first the drivers got 80% of the rides, then it was 70%. Now it’s not even a percentage, it’s calculated by your mileage and time. It’s just gone down, down, down.

About two years ago, I went into Uber’s office and asked about it. And they told me: 'we have enough drivers now, we can pay less' -- they had the audacity to tell me that.

That impacted my thinking tremendously.

When a friend of mine got shot when she was driving for Uber back in 2017, I started thinking: we are taking all the risks, but they are getting all the money.

And then, at the end of February, right when this pandemic started, I got sick while driving in San Francisco.

I went to the hospital down there, they took my temperature it was 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 Celsius). Fearing I might have contracted COVID-19, they asked me if I’d been to Wuhan, China.

I hadn’t, but I was driving a lot of people from the airport. I later tested positive for COVID-19, and was told to self-isolate for 14 days; I was sick for longer than that, though.

And when I tried to go back to work in May, after being off for two-and-a-half months, I waited for 10 hours at the San Francisco Airport, and only got one $23 fare.

There was just no work. The only compensation I got from Uber was $1,400 for that two weeks I was in quarantine.

And that’s when I really started thinking; if this were a regular job, we would get workers compensation.

We are out here doing this work, they are taking the money. And technically, since we are just contractors they aren’t responsible for us.

I have a lot on the line with Prop. 22. I want to be a real employee of Uber; it would give me job security, health insurance and benefits, and I would know I am getting a steady paycheck.

I can’t afford to go to the airport and wait, sitting around for an hour or two and not getting paid. I want to be paid by the hour for my work.

So, when people get in my car and ask me about Prop. 22, I tell all my customers: ‘please vote no.’

It’s really upsetting seeing Uber and Lyft spend all this money on Prop. 22. It’s like they are trying to buy a law; I think it’s wrong, if I get enough money -- can I buy a law?

I got 20,000 trips with Uber! Never a thank you from them; 'we appreciate it; here's a bonus.'

So, you know what? If Prop 22 passes, I won't drive anymore. Why should I? Enough is enough. 

(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)