In a typical week, Jerome Gage, a Lyft driver in Los Angeles, makes $900 to $1,000 before expenses during roughly 50 hours on the road. This week, with most of the state holed up and demand for rides evaporating, he expects to work even longer to make far less than half that amount.
Given the option, Mr. Gage said, he would stop wasting his time and risking his health and file for unemployment benefits. But unlike workers employed by restaurants, hotels and retail establishments, gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers typically have not been able to collect unemployment benefits or take paid sick leave.
The stalemate has set up a showdown with increasingly desperate drivers. On March 11, Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based plaintiff’s lawyer who has won rulings against Uber and Lyft over the employment status of drivers, filed complaints seeking to force the companies to follow the state’s new law immediately, giving drivers access to unemployment benefits and sick days. “It is very unfortunate that such a crisis may be necessary to prompt these companies into actually complying with the law and extending employment protections to their drivers,” Ms. Liss-Riordan said in an email. Her complaints are pending in federal court.
In a call with analysts last week, the Uber chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, alluded to the problem, suggesting that his hands were tied because Uber drivers are independent contractors. “This situation certainly demonstrates the downside of attaching basic protections to W-2 employment,” he said.
And in a letter to President Trump on Monday, Mr. Khosrowshahi asked that any economic stimulus or coronavirus-related legislation provide “protections and benefits for independent workers,” along with “the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward.” A Lyft spokeswoman said her company was also pushing to extend any forthcoming stimulus to drivers as well.
But for many drivers, the problem is not a legal void. It is that the companies they work for have not complied with existing laws or agency rulings.
The highest-profile case is in California, which passed a law last year requiring companies to classify workers as employees if the companies control how they do the work, or if they hire workers to perform a job central to the business.
The bill’s author has said she intended the law to apply to Uber and Lyft drivers, which would make them eligible for unemployment benefits and state-mandated sick leave. Legal experts have agreed with this interpretation. But Uber launched a legal challenge to the law late last year, and the two ride-hailing companies are investing tens of millions of dollars in a November ballot initiative that would effectively exempt them from it.
Uber and Lyft declined to comment on the situation in California, but both companies have announced that they would provide pay to drivers nationwide who were diagnosed with Covid-19 or were asked by a public health authority to isolate themselves.
While the cases play out, drivers around the state have stepped up efforts to demand that Uber and Lyft provide them with employment protections. A union-backed group called Mobile Workers Alliance, which Mr. Gage is involved with, began circulating a petition Friday demanding that the gig companies abide by the state’s new law deeming them employees. The petition has collected more than 6,000 signatures.
Lisa Opper, a Lyft driver involved with a group called Rideshare Drivers United, which held demonstrations on Thursday in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, said she typically worked 40 to 50 hours per week and made $900 to $1,000 before expenses. She made $226 the week before last, after which she stopped driving out of concern for her health.
“I won’t risk it,” Ms. Opper, who is 60 and diabetic, said on Friday. “The virus is airborne, and I had three or four people last week coughing.” She said she had been driving with a blue surgical mask but didn’t have access to the N95 mask that experts say is most effective at stopping the spread of the illness.
Ms. Opper said she planned to file for unemployment insurance and hoped to get benefits, at least on appeal. “I just believe Uber and Lyft are ignoring the law,” she said.