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Updated: June 17, 2019

CT rideshare drivers vow to keep pay-protection fight alive

Photo | Contributed Uber drivers in New York City participate in a one-day strike May 8. Uber drivers in Connecticut participated in a similar strike as they try to lobby for greater pay protections at the state Capitol.

When Guilford resident Carlos Gomez started working for Uber about three years ago, driving for 10 hours usually netted him about $250. These days, it can be more like $120.

“From 2016, Uber would usually take 20 to 25 percent of whatever the total amount was,” Gomez said. “Now it’s starting to look like they’re taking between 50 and 60 percent.”

That’s why Gomez, 45, and other organizers of Connecticut Drivers United, a loosely affiliated group of about 200 rideshare drivers across the state, pushed for a bill in the state legislature this year that would have, among other things, limited to 25 percent the amount companies like Uber and Lyft can take from each fare. Another proposal would have established a minimum per-mile, per-minute driver earnings rate.

But as many labor advocates cheered passage of a statewide minimum wage increase (to $15 per hour by 2023), the rideshare bills this year failed with little fanfare.

However, the issue has been gaining momentum nationally and is likely to stick around in Connecticut.

Last month, Uber drivers in more than a dozen U.S. cities — including Stamford — participated in a one-day demonstration calling for better working conditions and more transparency in the ridesharing company’s pay structure.

A 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that Uber drivers were earning less than their respective state minimum wage in 13 of 20 major markets.

Uber has pushed back against such studies, instead pointing to a 2016 paper — co-authored by its own research director along with recently deceased Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger — which found drivers in Uber’s 20 largest markets had average earnings of $19.04 per hour.

New York City may be one of the best examples of driver activism producing results.

Policymakers there raised rideshare drivers’ minimum wage to $27.86 per hour, or $17.22 after expenses, effective Jan. 2019. The city also capped the number of drivers rideshare companies may hire in the city, a move aimed at easing traffic congestion.

Though Connecticut didn’t change its laws this session, Gomez said he isn’t giving up. Connecticut Drivers United plans to continue to work with labor unions and legal aid attorneys to improve Connecticut drivers’ pay and work protections, he said, admitting it’s been a challenge convincing other drivers to join in the pursuit.

“It takes time, and it takes some money, too, and it’s something that happens little by little,” Gomez said. “It’s a lot of work to convince people that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Connecticut Drivers United first coalesced around a protest held at New Haven’s Union Station last December, said James Bhandary-Alexander, a staff attorney at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, who serves as the group’s legal counsel.

Since then, the group has been operating with a multipronged approach, Bhandary-Alexander said: pushing legislation, working with labor unions to lobby state government and appealing to the public by highlighting what they say are unfair practices and opaque payment methods on the part of Uber and Lyft.

“They’re still at the point where there’s no expectation [of immediate success] in this group as it is presently constituted,” Bhandary-Alexander said. “I guess the one overarching point I would make is this isn’t going away at all, the drivers will never go away.”

Exerting influence

Attempts to regulate ridesharing have set off a lobbying fight in Hartford, with Uber and Lyft having spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent months trying to influence policymakers, state records show.

Lyft spent $14,213 from January to April on lobbying, including hiring Hartford lobbying and PR firm Sullivan & LeShane, state ethics records show.

Uber spent $25,524 from March to May, much of that money going to Brown Rudnick Government Relations, records show.

Uber, which opposed this year’s rideshare bills in Connecticut, defends its methodology for paying drivers and argues the legislation would have been a hindrance to part-time drivers.

That’s because it likely would have led Uber to stop covering commercial insurance for in-state drivers, which would require them to pay about $4,500 per year, said company spokesman Harry Hartfield, referring to the price of that insurance in New York City. Since more than half of Uber drivers nationwide drive fewer than 10 hours per week, the $4,500 could lead many of them to leave the app, which would mean fewer available rides for passengers, Hartfield said.

In a statement, Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin also stressed that most of the company’s drivers are part-timers looking to supplement their income.

“They value the flexibility Lyft provides, which allows them to work when, where, and for how long they want, while earning more than $20 per hour on average,” Durbin’s statement said.

Uber, which recently became a publicly traded company, also pushes back against the notion that it’s reducing driver pay. Unlike a previous pay system where Uber took a percentage of the total passenger bill, fares are now based on multiple factors like mileage and trip duration. This makes driver rates dynamic, Hartfield said, and can result in drivers earning more.

Besides lobbying on their own behalf, Uber and Lyft also gained support from the Connecticut Business & Industry Association and MADD Connecticut (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), which argued increasing ridesharing costs might make fewer people use the services.

Photo | Contributed
Rideshare drivers as far away as London participated in a recent one-day strike.

Labor’s support

Meanwhile, Connecticut Drivers United has tapped its own powerful lobbying force: organized labor.

“What’s happening, as I understand it, is these companies are just gouging their [drivers’] rates all the time, and [drivers] have no control over it,” said Beverley Brakeman, regional director for United Auto Workers Region 9A, which represents taxi drivers in Connecticut. “So, we got involved in the legislative arena to help them lobby a bill in the state Senate to help them with rates and some rights on the job.”

Brakeman isn’t sure whether the UAW’s involvement with Connecticut rideshare drivers will grow beyond an advisory relationship to full union representation. One complicating factor is that Uber and Lyft have insisted their drivers are independent contractors, rather than employees, which drastically reduces their labor protections.

Independent-contractor status presents legal challenges as to whether and how UAW can bring these drivers into the fold, she said. But it’s not out of the question, Brakeman added, noting that the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union represents more than 70,000 rideshare drivers in New York City, according to the union.

Even if Connecticut Drivers United struck a deal with an established union, recruiting drivers to join the formal entity would likely be challenging. As Gomez has found in his organization efforts, even banding together an unofficial coalition of like-minded drivers can be a herculean task.

Unlike other professions, drivers on app-based platforms have no central place where a labor organizer can hand out fliers or talk to workers coming off their shifts. The tenuous nature of their employment also discourages some from joining in any pro-labor efforts, Gomez said.

“A lot of drivers are afraid. They feel that their driver status could be compromised if they speak out against Uber,” Gomez said, referring to the company’s ability to deactivate a driver, preventing them from getting fares through the app, at any time and for virtually any reason. “People have fears that somehow participating may mean they will somehow not be able to continue (driving).”

Moving forward, Bhandary-Alexander said he’s optimistic about Connecticut Drivers United’s prospects. While the bill the group supported this year didn’t pass, Bhandary-Alexander said few proposals by state residents with no lobbying backing do. The drivers’ bill got further than he expected, which he says bodes well for continuing the effort next legislative session.

Gomez says he’ll be there.

“[We need to] get more people on board, keep relationships with unions and the lawyers, keep working with the government here in Connecticut and try to get the bill passed next year,” Gomez said.

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