Momentum builds in bid to make Uber drivers employees

Representatives from the taxi industry and labor advocates are rallying behind recent New York state rulings that have granted two former drivers for Uber unemployment payments — a benefit generally reserved for workers considered to be employees.

Former Uber drivers Levon Aleksanian and Jakir Hossain were found to be eligible for unemployment benefits in rulings from the State Department of Labor decided this summer.

Uber’s drivers are independent contractors, meaning that they are usually not eligible for unemployment payments or employee benefits. Opponents to Uber’s labor practices said that, given the decisions, they would press the Department of Labor to challenge Uber to change its drivers’ classification to employees.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a group that represents thousands of cab drivers in the city and has advocated against the expansion of Uber, led the charge at a news conference Thursday.

“What we have seen is that companies like Uber continue to misclassify drivers as independent contractors in order to basically escape the most basic of labor laws, and that includes unemployment when you have been fired from [a] job,” said Bhairavi Desai, exectuve director of the alliance.

Desai’s alliance and the two former drivers are involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the state. Desai said the alliance brought the suit after numerous drivers had come to her complaining that the state had not responded to unemployment claims in a timely manner.

Cullen Burnell, a spokesman for the Department of Labor, said in an email that the department deals with unemployment insurance claims on a case-by-case basis, “independent of external factors.” Previous decisions on unemployment payments have ruled both ways for drivers in New York’s rideshare industry, he said.

“Depending on the facts, decisions have been made supporting both drivers as employees and drivers as independent contractors,” Burnell said. “Individual unemployment insurance claims are handled at the agency level. Confidentiality provisions prohibit us from commenting on the specific circumstances of individual cases.”

Uber, which operates as a black car service in the city, said classifying drivers as independent contractors allows the company to give them a valuable freedom.

“Nearly 90 percent of drivers say the main reason they use Uber is because they love being their own boss,” the company said in a statement. “Drivers use Uber on their own terms; they control their use of the app along with where and when they drive.”

Aleksanian, a Queens father of two, said he ended up losing his job driving for Uber last year after struggling to make money amid what he described as a “licensing issue” with the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

“In 2015, Uber started increasing the cars in the city and cutting the fares, which basically leads more drivers to work more hours and drive around with their cars empty,” said Aleksanian, 31.

The state is still examing worker classification in the emerging industry.

“As in many other states, the New York State Department of Labor continues to independently examine the wider issue of whether to classify drivers for rideshare services like Uber as employees or independent contractors,” Burnell said.


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