2020 has seen an overhaul in society due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. It has hit the workforce with a wave of unemployment. In light of the pandemic, and the social distancing policies in place, people found themselves out of a job and alone. Industries have been put on pause, revamped their processes, or shut down completely. Under these circumstances, what then of the rights of workers? Where does the salaryman stand when it comes to a global pandemic and what rights are retained when plighted by a natural disaster of this scale and reach?
California Courts, Uber, Lyft, and Ride Sharing Changed Forever?
The one light at the end of the tunnel for affordable commerce and employment was Uber and Lyft. They provided affordable ride-sharing services, and delivered goods and all types of foods. But licensed taxi services with licenses hated Uber and have sued them for unfair competition. Ultimately, so much vehicle traffic competition was spawned that LAX set up inconvenient staging areas at the opposite end of the airport.
As an example, the City of Los Angeles has banned curbside taxi and Uber pickups for airline passenger airport arrivals. In other words taxis and ridesharing services at LAX are forced to meet at a designated rallying point and wait in long lines for a ride. Otherwise, any curbside pick up is only allowed by designated shuttle buses. So now, rather than an Uber or taxi stand, travelers have to wait in a long line for a smelly, large bus with little or no social distancing, with a suffocating surgical mask, drag heavy luggage on to the bus, and then offload it at the designated taxi and Lyft spot. Your only other option is to drag your luggage through the sea of smog, jet fuel fumes, and exhaust mixed with diesel smell while wearing your suffocating COVID-19 mask. Your walk to the pick-up spot could be a mile or more away. (See Los Angeles Times).
In effect, ride-sharing services forced the end curbside up pickup. The rub was that even cobwebbed taxis who had been suing Uber for Unfair Practices, and who actually had proper licenses and trip tickets, were relegated to this new no man’s land. But for years prior to this, Uber in particular had been accused of defrauding drivers and customers. Uber’s position was that it could treat drivers like employees, and pay them as independent contractors.
Eventually, there was a jurisdictional split between the California Courts Appeal, with some saying drivers are owed work comp payments and other rights. At the other end was sister Courts of Appeal siding with Uber and Lyft that no duty was owed. When there was a car accident, Uber’s position was that it was not a master subjected to vicarious liability over its workers’ negligent or intentional acts, for example.
So with ridesharing expansion came a plethora of other problems. California has recently ruled that Uber and Lyft should reclassify their drivers as employees, which allows them employee benefits, amongst other things, including paid vacation and health insurance. Basically, billions are at stake and the Governor already threatened to shut Uber down completely after it was found that Uber skirted employment laws.
Both ride-sharing companies have made it clear that they will be making an appeal. But the court has also made their stance on the issue, saying that they shouldn’t be getting away with paying their dues and expecting the government to supplement their breaches. If the law is passed successfully, these essential staff will also be protected against unfair dismissal which is common in the gig community.
A blatant disregard for worker’s rights?
According to professionals in the employment sector, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the lack of basic workers’ rights in the country. In spite of the growing economy, 40 million workers have been displaced with no compensation. On the flip side, low-wage workers have found themselves working in unsafe conditions following the outbreak. With no insurance, they have no safety net to fall back on in the event they should fall sick. In fact, workers that request work-related health compensations are often let go. This is a marker of how broken the system really is.
McDonald’s, a popular fast-food chain, was hit with a lawsuit recently following hot on the heels of the pandemic. Employees were highly dissatisfied with the lack of protective gear provided by the restaurant, claiming that they were risking their lives to serve burgers and fries. Another case was brought to light regarding the workplace conditions of Smithfields Foods but was quickly dismissed by the judge as an Occupational Hazard.
This is completely the opposite of what happened in Europe. Workers were given 90% of their wages at the beginning of lockdown. Even employees in Asia, notably AirAsia, a low-cost budget airline, that retained all their staff in spite of the tourism sector being hit the hardest by the pandemic.
Americans have taken to expressing their dissatisfaction with the Trump Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), which is not doing what is expected. Failure to secure a standard for which companies and businesses should conduct safety and health proceedings is something that the American government has to confront, but any questions in regards to the agency’s lack of movement have so far been met with silence.
Freelancing and gig industries are suffering too.
It is not looking promising for freelancers or gig workers. If employers are refusing to take action for their employees, there is little to no chance that they would want to extend their resources to take care of contractors which are not their responsibility? The same can be said for Amazon delivery men, drivers for Uber, and other frontline workers not in the medical field. Being independent workers gives them less protection than employees. They do not have access to unions or collective bargaining rights.
With the world shifting towards a remote-work fuelled environment, new laws need to be made to ensure the protection of individuals who are working independently. While to the public, it might seem like a great option – flexible hours and the ability to work from the comfort of one’s home – the truth is in the hidden consequences that nobody sees: nobody is held accountable for these independent workers.
In the case of freelancers working on platforms such as Upwork or Fiverr, The Department of Labour has officially announced that those fall under independent contractors, and there is no way around it.
Holding companies accountable is the only solution
With the gig economy facing rapid expansion, something needs to be done to protect essential workers from employers who are exploiting loopholes in the system and depriving these people of what they deserve. Looks like Uber ad Lyft are learning the hard way. There are a lot of people who now have lawsuit rights to go back and sue Uber/Lyft for potentially billions. Employees who make Lyft or Uber work comp claims have even stronger rights Under California Labor Code Section 3706. Perhaps, instead of sitting around waiting for the government to enact a motion that guarantees fair wages and insurance for workers, along with health benefits or safety protocols for the workspace, workers should take a stand against this unfair treatment.