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Gig workers handed lifeline by White House stimulus plan

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Washington has answered the increasingly desperate pleas of gig economy executives by agreeing to include hard-up workers among the beneficiaries of the $2tn stimulus bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday.

If, as expected, the bill is passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, and signed into law by US President Donald Trump, it will mean rideshare drivers, as well as Airbnb hosts, stand to receive unemployment compensation for the first time.

But, by successfully lobbying for gig workers to receive the same protections as other unemployed people during the coronavirus crisis, the companies risk unravelling their own arguments for not providing any kind of safety net themselves.

“It is getting more and more difficult for Uber and other gig companies to continue the farce that their workers are not employees,” said Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent employment rights lawyer.

Harry Campbell, who runs a blog aimed at Uber and Lyft drivers, said the bill offered “a lot of relief” as use of the services plummets.

Rideshare drivers, food deliverers, Airbnb hosts and any other types of freelance workers left out of work will be compensated thanks to the bill, with the precise amount to be determined in accordance with state unemployment laws.

In California, for instance, workers should receive the same amount they would get from their normal hours, capped at $450 per week. Under the banner of “Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation”, the bill includes provisions for an additional $600 per week.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called it a “dramatic and historic expansion” of rights for those in non-traditional employment models, and it comes off the back of lobbying by gig companies over the past month.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called it a ‘dramatic and historic expansion’ of rights for those in non-traditional employment models © Erik S Lesser/EPA/Shutterstock

“My goal in writing to you is not to ask for a bailout for Uber,” Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief, wrote in a letter to Mr Trump three days ago. “But rather for support for the independent workers on our platform and, once we move past the immediate crisis, the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward.”

Reacting to Wednesday’s Senate vote, Mr Khosrowshahi said in a statement: “I encourage the House to act on this legislation to address this emergency, and I am committed that Uber will do its part to advocate for new laws that permit companies like ours to provide additional benefits for independent workers going forward.”

Airbnb policy chief Chris Lehane said the company was “deeply appreciative of bipartisan Senate and House leadership for recognising there is a new sector of the workforce who depend on Airbnb for their monthly economic needs”.

Mr Lehane had earlier lobbied legislators to offer hosts financial relief, such as tax breaks, and access to funds designed to prop up small business. After travel bans hosts on its platform were forced by the company to give full refunds in regions affected by coronavirus, regardless of the cancellation policy they had agreed with guests at the time of booking.

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Workers

Denver’s Gig Economy Workers Share Their Stories

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Photo by Victor Xok on Unsplash

Caught between the new coronavirus and earning a living, the Mile High City’s independent workforce opens up about how Lyft, Amazon, Instacart, and others are supporting them (or not) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In many ways, gig economy workers have become the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 crisis, often facing frontline exposure to the virus without the protections—including health and unemployment benefits—provided to traditional employees. Some companies have made efforts to support workers during this time, such as offering two weeks of sick pay for those diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. But even workers ordered to stay at home by local governments have experienced challenges getting the companies approve their claims.

Last week, which began with Instacart and Amazon employees and contractors striking for higher pay and better safety measures, several Denver gig workers talked with 5280 about their experiences during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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*Full names withheld at the request of the subjects. 

Nate*: Instacart

People are desperate, but that’s good though. Customers, they feel so bad for us, so a lot of the time they’re tipping us like crazy high. I could work seven days a week nonstop and make a ton of money, but I don’t want to do that because there’s a chance that I could be infected at anytime. Amazon and Whole Foods, their workers are going on strike because they don’t feel safe in these conditions.

The thing is, the last time people tried to strike against Instacart, it backfired on us. We used to have this quality bonus—every time a customer gave you five stars you got an extra $3 on your order. So it was a big incentive for us to give really good service. But when that strike happened, they completely removed it. They said they were going to implement new ways for incentivizing us with promotions, but that didn’t happen until—honestly until the coronavirus started to come into effect. Promotions are like, if you work from noon to 5 p.m., every delivery you do in that span you get an extra $3 per delivery. They don’t care. It’s that simple. They know they can exploit us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Sherrie Salazar: Lyft, Instacart, Postmates

I have always done the express rental program through Lyft and Hertz, but the rental is $250 a week, and I haven’t been making that the last two weeks. Ridership is down. Grocery shopping and food deliveries are through the roof, which is what’s saving us gig workers right now. I just started with Instacart and Postmates during the pandemic. Postmates isn’t a big tipper. Instacart is. My Postmates stuff has all been food delivery; I think maybe customers think they’re paying too much for their food so they’re not going to tip the driver. It’s like, we’re out here making sure you get it. And it’s still warm—or cold, or whatever it’s supposed to be.

I’m a high-risk [patient] if I were to get COVID-19. My heart functions at 74 percent. I have asthma. I have kidney disease. I’m pre-diabetic. I’m still doing my job. I’m being safe about it.

JL*: Lyft

I’m pretty sure I had or still have COVID-19, and I self-isolated the moment I started having symptoms. My children have had it as well. I immediately contacted Lyft to let them know that I would be returning my rental and isolating. I then contacted them to see what relief would be available to me. They indicated that without a positive test result, I get no help. But no one can get tested in Colorado unless they are admitted to the hospital or meet the criteria for high risk. I contacted my primary care physician, and they indicated they would not issue a request for a test because I do not meet the criteria.

I’m convinced Lyft knows that not many people can get tested so they made that a requirement for helping drivers, thus limiting their need to help drivers. This is a crock of shit. I have been driving full-time for Lyft for a year with over 3,900 rides. I would estimate Lyft has made in excess of $40,000 from me. Still, they can’t help me even though I did the right thing and stopped driving. 

Steve*: Amazon Flex

Amazon has said it’s hiring 100,000 workers both in warehouses and as flex drivers. I guess my perception is that they’re trying to bring in a lot of new drivers to increase the pool of people who are picking from available slots so Amazon can avoid surge pricing. My personal opinion is everything Amazon is going to do is going to be in its favor—which is going to decrease the amount it has to pay to do deliveries.

I can certainly understand why people are [striking]: It’s the low pay. It’s all these packages that are coming in from all different locations and you just don’t know if the virus is on any of them. How long can it survive on cardboard packages? With this coronavirus, I’m hoping it does compel some of these companies that are providing gig work to provide better [personal protective equipment]—not only for the drivers’ protection but also for the customers’ protection as well

Stephanie Ramsey: Uber, Lyft, Instacart

I’m not someone who has a savings account that I can fall back on. I’m grateful that I at least have something, because if I didn’t have [Instacart] I would be in a bad position. But yeah, I certainly feel forced into it. There’s not another option, really.

I don’t want this to wreck years of my life financially. I don’t want to get buried. I could stay at home and probably call all of the billing companies, and they would put it off for a little while but—yeah, I’d rather risk going out and getting sick than have to worry about my finances. Definitely.

At this point in time, my tips have been 50 percent and more of my overall earnings. If I was strictly relying on what Instacart is willing to pay me, this would not be worth it. It’s only worth it because there have been a lot of generous people.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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WEBINAR: Demystifying Unemployment for 1099 and Gig Workers

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I’m a single owner of an LLC – should I apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment benefits, or both? I haven’t been eligible for unemployment in the past, but I think I might be now – how does that work?

The Colorado Small Business Development Center is pleased to announce a webinar tomorrow, Friday April 10, aimed at independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary workers.

Get your questions answered about who should apply for unemployment, how to do it, when to expect funds, and more during this webinar hosted by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

When: Friday April 10, at 10am

Register for this Online Zoom Meeting at https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_osmdiJb4SeSqh6S8rKCs0A

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Ask SAM: What the heck are “gig workers”? | Ask SAM

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Q: What the heck are “gig workers”? I keep seeing that phrase turn up.

J.W.

Answer: That is a phrase for freelance and contract workers who work short gigs, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, temporary workers especially ones hired for a specific task. According to Investopedia, a business news website, “the gig economy is based on flexible, temporary or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform.”

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