This November, gig economy companies won a sweeping victory in the California vote. Voters overwhelmingly agreed to keep their workers as contractors rather than employees. Now these companies want to export this framework to the rest of the country.
Executives at Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and DoorDash Inc. have cited California’s decision as a blueprint for future struggles as states across the country question the future of gig workers’ rights. The companies have even set up a new national advocacy group to shape the political discussions. That means voters and elected lawmakers could increasingly be challenged to determine the employment rights of their Uber drivers and DoorDash couriers.
One group that doesn’t have a say, however, is many of the people who actually drive and make deliveries. Gig economy workers are much more likely to be immigrants than the rest of the population. The result is that some are unable to vote on the political struggles that increasingly determine their employment status.
According to one estimate, up to a third of drivers who work as independent contractors may not be eligible to vote. James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policy at the New School Center for New York Affairs, said that in many large cities like New York the high number of drivers who are immigrants and the number of those who are not citizens is around 30 % are unable to cast a vote – either directly for electoral action or in support of political candidates who reflect their views.
“That’s pretty high,” said Parrott. “There is a considerable risk of disenfranchisement.”
Tonje Ettevol is one of those workers. Ettevol has been a driver since 2014 and drives for both Uber and Lyft. He opposed California’s Proposition 22 election, which brought some benefits to gig workers but also cemented their status as independent contractors. “The only thing that matters regardless of what we do is when and where we sign in and out,” she said, calling the frame around the ballot “deceptive”.
In the run-up to the elections, Ettevol called drivers for hours on Mondays and texted them. He asked them to vote “no” to the proposal and suggested that they ask their drivers to do the same. But as a Norwegian citizen with only one green card, she could not vote against it herself.
The number of drivers who are immigrants has varied widely by market, but many in the US have taken an interest in driving as a job. In New York, 90% of passengers were born overseas. This comes from a 2018 study co-authored by Parrott and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In Seattle and surrounding King County, they found the number was 72% in 2020. In San Francisco, 56% of passengers and delivery drivers are non-US residents, according to a report from the University of California. Santa Cruz, earlier this year.
Citizenship status of app workers “severely limits their ability to have a say in an election initiative like Prop 22,” said Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research at Cornell University’s Worker Institute. “I would say that was a factor in California and will have an impact in other markets like New York, Chicago, Boston and others.”
Much is at stake for future votes and laws surrounding gig economy workers, which were estimated to constitute around 1% of the workforce even before the pandemic. Such workers are more likely than the rest of the population to face financial difficulties. In San Francisco, 30% of drivers say they sleep in their car, according to a study by the University of California at Santa Cruz. And in New York, 18% qualify for grocery stamps, almost twice as much as New York workers overall.
“A lot of my colleagues were quite concerned that so many people were left unprotected,” said Figueroa.
California’s Prop 22 is expected to go into effect this month and includes a wage floor, a health insurance grant, and some mileage reimbursement for independent app-based employees. The protection that goes along with regular, job-like sick leave as well as full disability and unemployment benefits is not granted. It is too early to say how much the drivers could overcome the status quo. The guarantee that workers will get more than the minimum wage doesn’t cover waiting time for a passenger, hours that average about a third of their working day, according to a study by the University of California, Berkeley.
But while labor activists were strongly against the election, it is not clear whether they could vote against the law even if migrant workers could vote against the law. According to Uber, three out of four drivers backed the proposal. Many of them appreciate the ability to set their own hours and the independence that comes with being able to work for multiple apps at the same time. Uber and Lyft have said if they were forced to employ drivers, they would likely hire fewer people and need more structured schedules.
The next battle lines are already being drawn over future gig work regulations. States like Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, and others are currently reviewing gig workers’ rights. In the meantime, working groups are organizing to combat the implementation of Prop 22 in California, as well as similar rules in other parts of the country. Gig Workers Collective organizer Vanessa Bain said the focus will be on mobilizing smaller groups of more committed activists in cities, including workers themselves, even if they cannot vote.
Luis Vasquez worked full-time for Uber from 2015 to earlier this year when he switched to DoorDash as the pandemic decimated demand for hailstorms. Vasquez, a single father, said he relied on tips to make ends meet and strongly supported rules that would turn gig workers into regular employees.
He said he had deployed a series of “No on 22” banners from freeway overpasses across Los Angeles every morning for the two weeks leading up to the California vote. Vasquez, an immigrant, is unable to cast a vote but said he found consolation in trying to influence the outcome in other ways.
“We fought a tremendous battle and we won’t stop,” he said. “I hope people will do something to stop these companies.”