Drivers from ridesharing companies don’t always get the best treatment. While one night, Jennifer Heinlein, an Uber driver, was driving a passenger from the airport home, her car was smashed when a drunk driver caused a pile-up of several cars on the St. John’s Bridge that threw her into oncoming traffic. If she hadn’t had a passenger in her car, Uber’s insurance wouldn’t have covered the accident. Even still, she had to pay a deductible and had to go without a paycheck while waiting for a new car. But as the companies say, she’s an independent entrepreneur.
The majority of Heinlein’s revenue comes from driving for Uber. Despite the challenges of being a driver, she loves the job. It allows her to explore, to have great conversations with people, and it gives her the flexibility she needs as a single mom.
The state has nearly 40,000 drivers like Heinlein who work for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.
They could all soon get a raise, as well as a package of benefits long denied to drivers working for public transit companies. That is, if House Bill 2076 is signed by Governor Jay Inslee. The bill has already been passed in the House and the Senate.
“Drivers have really been my North Star through this process,” said Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, the bill’s lead sponsor.
Berry said drivers want the same type and level of protection that most private sector employees already enjoy. Ride-hailing companies and taxi and limousine services typically hire drivers as independent contractors rather than full-time or part-time employees. Because independent contractors are considered self-employed, this leaves them exempt from employee benefits and protections.
“They are asking for benefits, a better quality of life and a better future. I’m really proud to sponsor this bill,” Berry said. “Drivers in these for-hire transportation industries, like taxis and limo services, were never considered employees, even before Uber and Lyft came into the market. This project of law is truly revolutionary in this regard.
Heinlein’s daughter is on the autism spectrum, so when schools closed in 2020, she had to stay home with her.
“She needed constant redirection,” the single mom said. At that time, she had to put her Uber behind the wheel until schools reopened. When her daughter’s school recently had an outbreak of COVID-19 and she was exposed, Heinlein had to stay home with her again.
“What was I supposed to do,” she recalls. She just had to not work and get paid. With the passage of the legislation, Heinlein would gain five sick days a year. This is one of the biggest perks for her, although she is also looking forward to the pay rise.
House Bill 2076 creates uniform statewide regulations for transit system companies, which include taxi and limousine services as well as public transit companies. It sets minimum per-mile and per-minute rates for drivers and provides paid sick leave, paid family medical leave, workers’ compensation coverage and unemployment insurance. However, this does not change the independent contractor classification of drivers.
The bill would also create a fund for a driver resource center to resolve disputes over deactivations.
“They want deactivation protection. That means when they’re on the app and for whatever reason they get kicked out or something, they want a course of action that’s a neutral place to arbitrate that,” Berry added. “The protection against disabling has a standard of just cause and gives them access to representation. All of this is enforced through the (Washington State Department of Labor and Industries).
Disabling protection and increased wages were originally drivers’ biggest demands, said Peter Kuel, president of Washington’s Drivers Union and an Uber and Lyft driver since 2014. Since COVID, however, the benefits are also have become very important. The Seattle-based union, which represents drivers statewide, has been advocating for years for increased wages, benefits and disablement protection. They’ve managed to make it happen for Seattle drivers, but with the legislation they hope to make it statewide.
“It’s not fair when we only do this in Seattle,” Kuel said. “It has to go to all of us because we are all the same.”
The union estimates that thousands of Vancouver-area drivers would benefit from HB 2076.
In Vancouver, drivers’ pay per mile would increase by more than 65% while the pay-per-minute rate would increase by more than 40%, Berry said. It’s unclear, however, what the pay of Washington drivers who pick up passengers in Oregon would be.
“We keep the job flexibility that the drivers say they want but we give them a lot more financial stability by increasing their salary. It also allows for (cost of living adjustments) every year. And those benefits, they don’t get paid by drivers but by businesses,” Berry said.
Opponents of the bill say the additional costs to businesses will simply be passed on to consumers in the form of higher fares, which could make public transit services less attractive to those consumers.
“Every penny of this bill was negotiated with business in mind,” Berry said. “They see Washington State as one of their main markets. They tell me this will allow their businesses to thrive here and operate successfully in our state, so I hope that’s true.