Washington Bill Would Give Raises to Uber and Lyft Drivers; Some in Labor Are Concerned

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When Don Creery punches in as a driver for Uber, he's loath to cross the bridge from Seattle to Bellevue, because when he does, the minimum pay he's guaranteed disappears.

"If I get a ride request and it appears it's going to the Eastside, I don't take it," he said.

Now, a year after Seattle's minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers took effect, state legislators are considering a similar floor of pay and benefits for drivers statewide. The bill, House Bill 2076, has already cleared the House and a key committee in the Senate.

If passed, drivers would gain a guaranteed minimum per ride that would increase at the same pace as the state's minimum wage, which is currently $14.49. They would also begin accruing paid sick time, become eligible for workers compensation, and gain access to an appeals process when drivers are deactivated.

The bill would also ban cities and counties from passing additional regulations on Uber and Lyft and make clear that drivers are not employees of the companies.

Backers of the bill, which include Uber and Lyft, as well as Teamsters Local 117, say it would set the national standard for guaranteed benefits to drivers. Workers outside of Seattle could see notable gains in their take-home pay.

"There's a lot of drivers in Tacoma and Vancouver and Bellingham that are driving 12 to 15 hours a day, but they're on food stamps," said Ahmed Farah, a driver and advocate who supports the bill.

But the legislation has also drawn a skeptical eye, both locally and nationally, from those who fear it will cut off creative local legislating. For those eager to see gig work folded into a more standard employer/employee relationship, the cost threatens to outweigh the benefits.

"This is major legislation that would set a lot of precedence in the state that could have real unintended consequences, and it needs to be really carefully considered," said Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program.

Lurking in the background of the bill's progress is the threat that without a deal, Uber and Lyft could go it alone by way of a ballot initiative. The companies poured millions of dollars into such an effort in California, successfully passing Proposition 22, which defined their drivers as independent contractors before a judge found it unconstitutional. The companies are taking a similar tack in Massachusetts. And while no ballot initiative has been filed in Washington, a political action committee backed by gig-based companies has amassed millions in apparent preparation.

"There's this pressure to get it done because Uber and Lyft are holding this possibility of an initiative over our head," said Creery.

Asked to comment, spokespeople from both Uber and Lyft expressed support for the bill, but declined to be quoted directly.

It was near Thanksgiving when drivers first approached Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, about writing legislation guaranteeing basic minimums.

"They were looking for someone who would be willing to take this on, and, very honestly, it's a really hard thing and that's why I don't think any legislators were jumping up and down saying 'Pick me,'" said Berry, a freshman legislator.

But Berry agreed, kicking off negotiations.

If signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the law would guarantee drivers outside of Seattle $1.17 per mile and $0.34 cents per minute, with a $3-per-trip minimum. Seattle's law mandates higher pay  — $1.38 per mile, $0.59 per minute and a minimum of $5.17 per trip — and the state legislation would allow the city to retain its higher rate. Pay would increase at the same pace as the state's minimum wage.

The bill also would allow drivers to accrue sick time, and begin a process of studying how to fold them into the state's unemployment insurance, paid family medical leave and long-term care programs. Drivers would also become eligible for workers compensation.



One major fear among drivers is being dropped from the Uber and Lyft platforms, and this legislation would set up an appeals process for drivers kicked off the apps.

Farah, the driver, saw firsthand what the expanded benefits could do. Seattle granted access to paid sick and safe time to drivers in the early months of the pandemic. When Farah and his whole family came down with COVID, he was able to take a week off and still collect pay, he said.

"Having a benefit like that was able to give me something to fall back on, to make ends meet," he said. "So having that expanded statewide would be crucial and beneficial to a lot of drivers."

"To be able to expand rights statewide, it's important," said Creery, a driver and board member of the Drivers Union, which advocates for Seattle-based gig-workers. He has concerns it would not solve the Seattle-to-Bellevue problem and the preemption language is not ideal, he said. But for everyone outside of Seattle, the gains are significant. "For the Tacoma drivers, this is great," he said. "Tacoma drivers are now going to be the second- or the third-highest-paid in the country."

The tension surrounding the bill exists between the real-time gains for drivers and those concerned about its broader implications. Martin Garfinkel, the former head of the Seattle Office of Labor Standards, called the bill a "mixed bag."

"I understand why there's labor and drivers who have testified for it," he said. "It does benefit drivers statewide."

But the language preempting cities and counties from further regulating the companies gives him pause. Halting "local innovations" is a tactic used by anti-labor groups across the country and something worker advocates oppose, he said.

"It's not a good thing because it is a principle we do not want replicated," he said. "We don't want other sectors saying, 'We want to eliminate the local municipality's ability to innovate.'" Garfinkel pointed to the emergency measures passed by Seattle during the pandemic, as well as a $3.4 million settlement the Office of Labor Standards won from Uber over unpaid wages and sick time. This bill would preclude both from happening for Uber and Lyft drivers in the future as Seattle's law is replaced and enforcement turned over to the state.

"I think the end result will be an improvement for drivers statewide, not quite as good for Seattle drivers, and a bad precedent," he said.

Gerstein of Harvard argued it's a step in the wrong direction for a progressive state like Washington to give up the fight to make drivers employees.

"The conditions that are described in this bill, while an improvement over current conditions, are far less than what drivers would get if they were treated as employees under state law," she said.

Creery pushed back on the philosophical critiques of the bill. He said drivers like him are less concerned about being labeled employees, calling the argument "semantic."

"These people who are criticizing us, they haven't done anything for us," he said.

Rep. Berry also played down the concerns raised by labor advocates. Unlike Seattle, other cities around the state haven't shown much appetite for regulating ride-hailing companies. On the question of whether drivers are employees, she said this bill does not cut off the federal government from weighing in.

At the end of the day, "This bill is going to give drivers a pay raise in every market around the state now, and that's a really big deal," she said.

The bill could receive a vote before the full Senate this week. If approved, it would return to the House before heading to Inslee's desk.