NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than 1,350 people have signed a petition demanding that Uber “stop lying” to drivers and start giving the state Department of Labor the pay information necessary for them to collect unemployment-compensation benefits.
The company sent drivers an email Mar. 29 telling them that they were not eligible for regular unemployment benefits and should instead apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the federal program enacted late last month to cover independent contractors and the self-employed. The state Labor Department has begun taking applications for that program, which will provide up to 39 weeks of benefits, but says people can’t apply unless they’ve already tried to get regular unemployment benefits and been denied.
The Labor Department’s Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board ruled in 2018 that app-based and black-car drivers should be considered employees eligible for regular unemployment benefits, but Uber has refused to provide the wage data needed to calculate how much they will receive. The company’s Mar. 29 message said that because the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program had been signed into law only two days before, “it will likely take several weeks before state agencies begin to process unemployment insurance claims. After that, it will likely take more time to get this assistance in the hands of those who need it.”
The petition, posted Apr. 6 by three New York Taxi Workers Alliance members, demands that Uber “stop misleading drivers about our right to unemployment benefits in New York State” and start submitting the wage data.
“Any delay in benefits during this pandemic could be a matter of life and death for Uber drivers,” it says. “Today, as the COVID-19 crisis rages through New York, Uber drivers, like many other gig workers, face unprecedented health risks and total financial ruin. At a moment of such crisis, Uber’s actions are designed to confuse drivers about our immediate right to access New York State unemployment insurance and to obstruct quick delivery of those benefits.”
“I can’t survive anymore without income,” driver Muhammad K. posted on the petition site Apr. 9. “Please, Uber, we need that money or else we have to go out and risk our life and our families too.”
In a March 31 letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai called the company’s message that drivers were only eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits “purposely misleading.”
Uber insists that drivers should not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits. “Multiple federal courts have deemed black-car drivers—which include Uber driver partners—to be independent contractors,” company spokesperson Harry Heartfield told LaborPress in March.
Uber also contends that it has stopped some of the practices at issue in the Labor Department ruling, and that while 12 states have ruled that app-based drivers are eligible for unemployment insurance, six have decided that they can’t collect the compensation because they’re independent contractors.
In practice, New York State decides whether drivers are eligible for benefits on a case-by-case basis. Even before the state’s unemployment-benefits system got overwhelmed by people laid off in the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic, Desai told LaborPress in March, drivers had to wait up to three months to be granted benefits, where most laid-off workers can get them in a week or so.
The Labor Department received more than more than 800,000 applications for unemployment benefits from people laid off between March 5 and Apr. 4, more than 15 times the number of people who applied in the same period last year. It now says that applicants for regular unemployment should expect to wait “two to three weeks” to get paid after filing their claim, despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspending the usual one-week waiting period in March. If their application requires additional information before it’s approved, it would take longer.
“Your failure to submit earnings data serves no other purpose but to punish drivers,” Desai said in the Mar. 31 letter to Khosrowshahi. “Your failure further burdens and taxes the resources of the Labor Department, which is already overwhelmed with a historic number of applications. Millions of other workers could have their claims delayed as the Labor Department’s resources are siphoned away to manually review wage data for Uber drivers.”
As of Apr. 14, at least 28 city cab drivers had died from lung-destroying coronavirus infections, according to NYTWA.