Twenty-six-year-old Takele Gobena is part of the “on-demand” economy, working full-time as a driver for Uber and part time for Lyft. The Ethiopian immigrant quit his job at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and purchased a new car to drive for the ride-hailing firms, believing it would make him a better provider for his one-year-old daughter. Instead, Gobena now finds himself in debt and, after expenses, making well below minimum wage. But because Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors, Gobena is not protected by minimum wage laws.
Gobena’s plight is an increasingly familiar one. A new report from the National Employment Law Project, “Rights on Demand: Ensuring Workplace Standards and Worker Security In the On-Demand Economy,” highlights the problems so many on-demand workers face: “Characterizing workers as non-employees has serious negative consequences for them: non-employees have no statutory right to minimum wage, overtime pay, compensation for injuries sustained on the job, unemployment insurance if involuntarily separated from employment, or protection against discrimination.”
The authors of the report, Rebecca Smith, NELP’s deputy director, and Sarah Leberstein, senior staff attorney, call for workforce-wide enforcement of current and developing labor standards. “New technologies should not be allowed to displace existing protections for the many on-demand workers who are, in fact and in law, employees.”
Gobena is inclined to agree. In a phone interview with Capital & Main, he spoke about driving for Uber and Lyft.
Capital & Main: Why did you leave your job at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to drive for Uber and Lyft?
Takele Gobena: I thought that I could earn a better income driving for these companies. Their ads led me to believe my pay would be $25 an hour.
Capital & Main: How does your airport job compare with working for Uber and Lyft?
Gobena: At the airport, I earned $9.47 an hour as a dispatcher and had health-care benefits. With Uber and Lyft, driving 37,000 miles in 2014, after all my expenses (vehicle financing, fueling, insuring and maintaining) I earn $2.64 an hour and have no health-care coverage if injured.
Capital & Main: Are you an Uber employee?
Gobena: No. I am an independent contractor for Uber. I work without company benefits, and when passengers phone me.
Capital & Main: Has Uber or Lyft retaliated against you for vocalizing displeasure with your treatment?
Gobena: On August 31, I shared my personal experience as an Uber and Lyft driver before the Seattle City Council, which the press reported. [Seattle Councilmembers Mike O'Brien and Nick Licata have introduced city legislation that would allow on-demand transportation drivers to bargain collectively with their employers.] Uber deactivated [my account].
Capital & Main: What happened next?
Gobena: I took a screen shot of the deactivation account [notice] and sent it out to the media. They called Uber about it. Then Uber reactivated me.
Capital & Main: How did you become a labor advocate?
Gobena: I worked with the immigrant Ethiopian community in Seattle, then with employees pushing to increase the minimum wage at Sea-Tac. I saw how difficult it is to live on the minimum wage, and began to speak out about that.
Capital & Main: In addition to NELP, who are your political partners?
Gobena: I do not have any. I speak for myself and the other on-demand workers like me who receive unfair treatment.
Capital & Main: Describe feedback that Uber and Lyft give you on your job performance.
Gobena: If customers complain, Uber gives me a warning that I must improve. However, the company does not tell me how or what needs improvement.
Capital & Main: Are you looking for another job?
Gobena: No. I have invested $14,000 in buying my car that I drive for Uber and Lyft. I must continue driving passengers in it to recoup my investment.
Capital & Main: What needs to happen next for on-demand workers employed with Uber and Lyft?
Gobena: We like the ride-hailing innovation and transportation for our city, but Uber and Lyft drivers need better treatment and livable wages. This issue affects riders and drivers alike.