Clark County, Washington ride-hail drivers could soon be getting raise, benefits

Drivers for ride-hail companies don’t always get the best treatment. When Jennifer Heinlein, an Uber driver, was driving a passenger home from the airport one night, her car was smashed when a drunk driver caused a multiple car pileup on the St. John’s Bridge that launched her into oncoming traffic. If she’d not had a passenger in her car, Uber’s insurance wouldn’t have covered the crash. Even still, she had to pay a deductible and had to go without a paycheck while she waited to get a new car. But as the companies say, she’s an independent contractor.

A majority of Heinlein’s income comes from driving for Uber. Despite the challenges of being a driver, she likes the work. It lets her explore, it lets her have nice conversations with people, and it gives her the flexibility she needs as a single mom.

The state has nearly 40,000 drivers like Heinlein who work for ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft.

They all could soon be getting a raise, along with a package of benefits long denied to drivers working for ride-hail companies. That is, if House Bill 2076 is signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. The bill already has passed the House and Senate.

“The drivers have really been my North Star throughout this process,” said Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, the bill’s primary sponsor.

Berry said drivers want the same kind and level of protections already enjoyed by most employees in the private sector. Ride-hail companies and taxi and limousine services typically hire drivers as independent contractors rather than full-time or part-time employees. Because independent contractors are considered self-employed, that leaves them exempt from employee benefits and protections.

“They’ve been asking for benefits, and a better quality of life and future. I’m really proud to sponsor this bill,” Berry said. “Drivers in these for-hire transportation industries, like taxis and limo services, they’ve never been considered employees, even before Uber and Lyft came to the market. This bill really is ground-breaking in that way.”

Heinlein’s daughter is on the autism spectrum, so when schools closed in 2020, she had to stay home with her.

“She needed constant redirection,” said the single mother. At that point, she had to put her Uber driving to the side until schools reopened. When her daughter’s school had a COVID-19 outbreak recently and she was exposed, Heinlein had to stay home with her again.

“What was I supposed to do,” she recalled. She simply had to go without working and getting paid. With the passage of the legislation, Heinlein would gain five sick days per year. That’s one of the biggest benefits for her, though she is also looking forward to the pay increase.

House Bill 2076 creates uniform statewide regulations for transportation network companies, which includes taxi and limousine services as well as ride-hail companies. It sets minimum per-mile and per-minute rates for drivers, and provides paid sick leave, paid family medical leave, workers’ compensation coverage and unemployment insurance. It does not, however, change the drivers’ independent contractor classification.

The bill would also create a fund for a driver resource center to resolve disputes around deactivations.

“They want deactivation protection. That means when they are on the app and for whatever reason they are kicked off or something, they want a course of action that is a neutral place to arbitrate that,” Berry added. “The deactivation protection has a just cause standard and grants them access to representation. All of this is enforced through (the Washington State Department of) Labor and Industries.”

Deactivation protection and increased pay were the originally the biggest demands from drivers, said Peter Kuel, the president of Washington’s Drivers Union and an Uber and Lyft driver since 2014. Since COVID, however, benefits also became very important. The Seattle-based union, which represents drivers statewide, had been advocating for years for increased pay, benefits and deactivation protection. They were able to bring it into fruition for drivers in Seattle, but with the legislation, they hope to bring it statewide.

“It’s not fair when we do this in Seattle alone,” said Kuel. “It has to go to all of us because we’re all the same.”

The union estimates thousands of drivers in the Vancouver area would benefit from HB 2076.

In Vancouver, driver mileage pay would increase by more than 65 percent while the per-minute pay rate would increase by more than 40 percent, Berry said. It’s not clear, however, what the pay would be for Washington drivers who pick up passengers in Oregon.

“We keep the flexibility of the work the drivers say they want but we give them so much more financial stability by raising their pay. It also allows for (cost of living adjustments) every year. And these benefits, they are not paid for by the drivers but are paid for by the companies,” Berry said.

Opponents of the bill say the additional costs to the companies will simply be passed on to consumers in the form of higher rates, which could make ride-hail services less attractive to those consumers.

“Every single cent in this bill was negotiated with the companies in mind,” Berry said. “They see Washington state as one of their top markets. They’re telling me this will allow their companies to thrive here and operate successfully in our state, so I have to hope that’s true.”

Article Source: The Columbian