Updated April 9 at 9 a.m.
Rideshare drivers in Boston renewed their fight for employee classification from Uber and Lyft on Monday as they protested for benefits like paid sick leave on the Boston Common. Facing major wage losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, drivers won the ability to pursue wage claims against rideshare companies more than two weeks ago — which attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who filed the motions, said is a step in the right direction — but are still urgently seeking legal recognition as employees in the interim.
Currently, Uber and Lyft classify their drivers as independent contractors, rendering them ineligible for benefits that many workers depend on, such as paid time off, sick leave, and qualifying for unemployment.
As a result, drivers are not being compensated for being out of work due to the decrease in demand for rides during the pandemic. Both Uber and Lyft have released statements that they will provide some kind of financial compensation for drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19.
On Monday, drivers in Boston demanded the state recognize them as employees of Uber and Lyft and require the companies to provide them with paid sick leave as required under Massachusetts law. To draw awareness to their demands the group staged a driving protest, in which they drove in coordination from the Boston Commons to Logan Airport and back into the city center.
In a statement to WGBH News, Lyft defended their current employment structure and said that requiring the company to classify their drivers as employees could result in the company laying off drivers.
“Lyft is playing a critical role in delivering essential services during this pandemic by connecting people with vital services and goods,” Lyft said in the statement. “Attempting to force TNCs to adopt an employment model in the midst of this crisis would result in the widespread elimination of work for thousands and the immediate interruption of essential services for vulnerable populations. It will hurt drivers and at-risk communities at a time when they need our services most.”
Uber did not respond to a request to comment from WGBH News.
Members of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild (BIDG), who led the protest, also focused on Attorney General Maura Healey, who they say has not done enough to support local drivers. In a letter to Healey, the group called on her to file an injunction that would require Uber and Lyft to grant drivers sick pay, as required by Massachusetts law, and separately sue the companies for damages.
“As many of the thousands of drivers in the state of Massachusetts live paycheck-to-paycheck already, the coronavirus pandemic puts drivers in an increasingly precarious position. Currently, we must decide between risking our health and the health of our passengers to continue driving or to forgo work and be unable to pay our bills, keep up with our rent or mortgages, and buy food for our families,” Henry De Groot, executive director of BIDG, wrote in a statement. “We urge you to immediately seek damages from Uber and Lyft for violations of employment law over the previous period, thereby providing an economic stimulus package that will support drivers in this time of crisis.”
In a statement provided to WGBH News, Healey’s office defended the attorney general’s work on supporting rights for gig workers, and cited two amicus briefs they filed in support of federal motions filed on behalf of the drivers.
“We stand with Massachusetts Uber and Lyft drivers and are supportive of their efforts to access earned sick time during this public health emergency,” a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said. “We are calling on Uber and Lyft to immediately step up and provide their workers with adequate paid sick time so that they can protect themselves and prevent the spread of this virus.”
Liss-Riordan said that Healey’s office has provided valuable help. She said that the briefs filed in support of her motions brought more gravitas to their argument due to the attorney general’s stature. Though critics have accused Healey of nonchalance, Liss-Riordan said that given the way the system is structured, it may have been more effective for Healey to support Liss-Riordan’s already existing work rather than begin a case anew.
A federal judge deciding that drivers are allowed to pursue wage claims against rideshare companies in court was a big win, according to Liss-Riordan, who called it a step in the right direction toward Uber and Lyft drivers gaining full rights as employees. Previously, drivers who had disputes with the companies were contractually required to settle their claims in private arbitration rather than in a court.
Still, drivers remain worried that without paid sick leave workers either face financial losses from not driving or put themselves in danger by continuing to conduct rides, during which social distancing is not possible.
Marcos Haubert, a Boston-area Uber driver who has worked for the company for six years said it was reckless of Uber not to provide drivers with sick pay unless they have a confirmed case of COVID-19 or are ordered home by a doctor.
“I feel that it is irresponsible,” Haubert said. “Obviously most people who feel milder symptoms will not be tested by the already overwhelmed hospitals. Without any assistance from Uber, many of those people will be forced to continue driving despite potentially having the virus.”
While there is a growing movement within the federal government to grant drivers labor rights, the economic consequences of the pandemic are already severe. Since Haubert quit driving in early March due to COVID-19, he estimates he’s lost more than $6,000 in wages. For the workers who risk driving during the crisis, De Groot said their weekly earnings are likely to be reduced by hundreds of dollars, and that though drivers can opt to sign up for other services like DoorDash or UberEats, there are only a limited number of opportunities to work.
“At this point in time, there’s not much money out there,” De Groot said. “Possibly if you worked a 40-hour week before COVID, you could make $1,000. Now, you’re lucky if you work 40 hours and make a couple hundred dollars.”
Liss-Riordan said a failure to provide drivers with sick pay could coerce drivers to continue driving, even while sick, and infect others.
“This crisis just goes to show that Uber and these other companies' failure to provide basic protections to their workers not only harms those workers, it harms the public as a whole,” Liss-Riordan said. “I’ve been making this argument for a long time, that these companies’ ability to avoid their obligations under the law is having a negative effect on the public because it burdens the shift to the public.”
On the federal level, drivers were granted some aid from a recently passed stimulus bill that will allow independent contractors to file for unemployment and provide a one time check for $1,200 to any driver making less than $75,000 a year.
On Monday, both of Massachusetts’ senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, voiced their support for rideshare drivers. During a virtual press conference, Warren said that the drivers should unequivocally have labor rights, while accusing companies like Uber and Lyft of jeopardizing public health in the name of profit.
“I want to be loud and clear,” Warren said. “You are employees, and you should have all of the rights and protections that come with that. These companies are boosting their profits by denying you basic protection, and it is putting your health and your economic safety at risk. It is just wrong.”