Zero Unemployment Assistance

Unemployment for this gig worker appears to be a myth for now

This is a picture taken by the author of the computer screen showing an unemployment claim that pays $0.00.
Photo by the D. Thayer Russell.

After two long two weeks of patiently waiting and biding my time, I was finally sent an e-mail confirming my eligibility for unemployment. As a rideshare driver, my earnings had been affected by the COVID-19 crisis for over a fortnight, but being a gig-worker I was not eligible to apply for benefits until the official passage of the federal stimulus bill which would reportedly allow contracted workers to qualify for unemployment.

Just applying had proven difficult due to the inability to get a hold of anyone in the unemployment office to assist me in completing an application that was designed to determine the amount of benefit owed a former employee on behalf of the company that had released them. The problem was that as a gig-worker no company was willing to claim me as an employee. I resolved to complete the application to the best of my ability and submit it online. The ten-day waiting period for a response had already turned into two weeks, so I was beginning to get impatient with no money coming in to address the timely arrival of monthly bills and invoices.

At the urging of my family I had hung up the keys to my car and took myself off the road, deciding that I would instead focus on educating my daughter whose school had been closed for the foreseeable future. I was going to scale back and make do on an unemployment subsidy as the risk of contracting the virus was not worth the reward of working all night for well below minimum wage. I’d been making about $6 an hour (half the minimum wage in CA) driving around all night during the initial weeks of quarantine. Needless to say, I had not been the most attentive parent or teacher — all groggy eyed and worn-out from a long graveyard shift of doing my best to make ends meet.

I’ve always said that driving rideshare has been the best and worst decision of my life. It’s a well-rehearsed line I’ve used several times in response to inquiries from passengers curious about my experiences driving a taxi-cab of the new millennium. It has been an eye-opening and fantastic ride filled with remarkable people, wonderful conversation, and occasional adventure. I have learned a tremendous amount about myself and people along the way in the beautiful exchange of hearts and minds between strangers. I have made friends for life while driving and have had enlightening moments of human interaction that warm my heart just thinking about them.

I often ponder the endless possibilities that come with each accepted request, as I welcome a new stranger into my life with an unknown destination and story to tell — a tale in which I have just been cast in the bit role of taxi driver. My life as a supporting actor in the lives of my passengers is often dictated by the mood and experience that they bring with them, factors beyond my control and open to the whims, joys and disappointments inherent in each of our experience. These memories help to justify what has been a long and tiring journey.

Full-time rideshare drivers have to work sixty to seventy-hours a week just to make a sustainable wage. The portion of fare that drivers receive doesn’t fairly compensate for the inherent expenses of fuel, rapidly accumulating costs of car maintenance, and mileage. Moreover, we receive no healthcare benefits, vacation pay or sick time, often forcing us to work through sickness and disease. It is all the more reason why it is essential that drivers be supported in this time when as a society we attempt to collectively curb the spread of a highly contagious and deadly virus.

I hesitate to write this article at this time because there are millions of people in the throes of financial hardship and who wants to read another sob story about unpaid rent and a growing stack of past-due bills. Moreover, as I write, there are innumerable individuals battling this mysterious life-threatening illness, or suffering helplessly while they can do nothing to help or comfort a loved one dying in quarantine. There are lives being lost which obviously trumps the loss of jobs or income.

Nevertheless, I have always felt a social responsibility to speak up on behalf of my fellow drivers whenever I write about the experience of driving. We are a large global community who have been significantly exploited by the companies for which we are “contracted” to provide services. The major rideshare companies have gained market control over the transportation industry at the cost of the individuals doing the bulk of the work — the drivers rolling around in their own cars and carrying passengers.

Now allow me to discuss how this has impacted the amount of my unemployment subsidy as determined by the state of California. After re-confirming my eligibility by answering the standard questions regarding whether I had looked for work in the past week or had joined an educational program preparing me for future work opportunities, I was informed that I am now eligible to receive $0.00 every week. That is not a typo. I did not miss a number. I am wondering if the system is going to pour salt on my wound and issue me a check for $0.00.

I would be completely in the dark as to why were it not for an e-mail I received last Friday. About two years ago, I was driving somewhere in Los Angeles when a colleague approached me, asking if I wanted to join Rideshare Driver’s United, an attempt at forming a union advocating on behalf of drivers for the basic rights of minimum wage and standard health benefits to which all workers are entitled. I was happy to join the cause and imagined a strike with 50,000 cars parked in a stadium parking lot while prices on the rideshare platforms surged due to the lack of drivers available. It would be a firm and clear message to the companies that we are indeed essential employees.

However, it would never work; it is impossible to organize a work force that has no water cooler. We rarely get to interact with our co-workers as we are isolated in our mobile offices waiting for our next ride request. Moreover, we are essentially a community of “scabs” that have already unhinged and undermined the transportation industry as it once was. How often do you see taxis driving around anymore? I took a verbal lashing and admonishment from an elder cousin who worked several years as a cab driver when I told him I was driving rideshare.

I appreciate Rideshare Driver’s United for all of their efforts, but from best as I can tell they are not a very big organization and communication with drivers is inconsistent and spotty at best. I’ll go months between text messages about plans of action and ways to advocate on the behalf of our rights. I still receive weekly calls from my last union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), an organization so large and powerful that they have their own skyscraper on Wilshire Boulevard from which to direct their operations. As far as I can tell, Rideshare Driver’s United is run by a colleague sending out group text messages from the driver’s seat of his/her car in between rides.

Anyhow, in their e-mail, Rideshare Driver’s United had explained that drivers were not receiving unemployment benefits due to the current confusion over whether we are to be classified as independent contractors or employees. You see, the people of California already voted on and passed a law that went into effect on January 1st of this year that requires technology companies and the like to provide gig workers with employee benefits and a standard minimum wage. However, the major rideshare companies have refused to re-classify us as employees and have instead spent millions of dollars gathering signatures in front of grocery stores under the guise of protecting the flexibility of their drivers. If you live in California, you have definitely been approached by these autograph collectors because they are getting paid upwards of five dollars a signature when such political petitions normally pay in cents not greenbacks per ‘John Hancock.’

The rideshare corporations even send out notices to drivers asking us to sign up and join them in their effort to protect our rights to a flexible schedule. They threaten drivers with claims that we would be required to adhere to a rigid work schedule if they were to follow the law. They also send out surveys collecting data on driver preferences for a flexible schedule. However, “polling all drivers” includes the millions of drivers who only drive between five and ten hours a week, or even far less. These individuals have alternate sources of health benefits and often full-time jobs with traditional schedule demands. They do not put the significant amount of wear and tear on their vehicles that full-time drivers do, so naturally when asked if flexibility is important, they give the corporations the answer they desire. However, these part-time drivers are not the basis that sustains the business. I would venture to say that most rideshare business is completed by the crazies like me out there driving sixty and seventy hours a week — so unless you are going to give full-time drivers six votes to their one, this is not an accurate depiction of the needs of the driving work force.

I’ve been driving full-time for four years and I know that drivers are paid well below minimum wage in both the Bay Area, where I primarily drove for the first three years, and even lower in Los Angeles, where I have driven for the past year. I could crunch the numbers for you, but for now I am just going to say that there are official studies conducted by universities and economists that back up this assertion. Rideshare Driver’s United recently assisted me in filing for back wages as stipulated by the new law that went into effect in January; I was informed that based upon my work over the past three tax years, one company owes me well over $200,000 and the other owes me over $100,000. That sounds about right. I have worked countless hours and I am still slowly accumulating debt. I should be stacking money given the amount of overtime that I clock.

I don’t expect to ever see this money, but I will continue to speak out for the rights of drivers when asked to do so. Furthermore, I would appreciate it if the companies that I have worked so hard for (while maintaining an outstanding customer service and safety rating with passengers who rate you on every trip) would step up in this dire time and take care of their essential employees who have maintained the business. Unfortunately, I know that this will not happen as the reality is quite different.

If and when I return to driving following this crisis, I am positive that I will be competing with more and more drivers for whatever rides are available because the high unemployment rate will have led the companies to advertise themselves once again as a “side-hustle” for making money and getting your feet back on the ground. There will be no protection for full-time drivers and the market will be flooded with more drivers than ever, leading to less ride requests and less money. After all, what do the companies have to lose from over-saturating the market with drivers? Nothing, because they don’t have to pay us benefits. In fact, they will make gains as riders will have shorter wait times and find this service even more convenient than it already is…yet at the silent cost of basic human and employee rights.

I always figured that driving rideshare would be a debt that I could manage. When my car inevitably dies long before it is paid off due to the 260,000 miles and counting that I have accumulated since signing up to drive, I would just fire up my old truck collecting dust in the garage, blow the dust off my textbooks, and head back to the classroom to continue my lifelong vocation as an educator. Maybe I would bike to school and shed off some of the other debt incurred on my gut by sitting in the driver’s seat for hours on end. But right now, I am not sure how I am even going to pay my rent.

So why don’t I just join one of the delivery apps in their collective campaign to save our favorite restaurants and deliver food with my daughter in the back seat along for the ride? Well, first because this is not good parenting. Second, I am a gig worker and have been for three years, so I no longer have favorite restaurants. Mostly however, it is because I have been getting “side-hustled” by technology companies for years, and I can tell when a vulture is trying to profit off the carcasses of a tragedy.

The nearly 20,000 wonderful people that have joined me on this ride as passengers have been the true joy of my job. This love for people is why I will do my best not to return to work right now, because about half of the customers currently ordering rides at night are actually people ignoring social distancing rules. I respect people and my daughter too much to put myself, her, and others at risk by facilitating the spread of disease. However, if I am unable find access to the unemployment money that has been set aside for people like me, I may soon be left with no choice.

Educator and eternal student. Prefer paper pages and overt spines over webpages and covert designs. Avid reader and writer of creative and original content.

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