Uber CEO to Trump: Include gig workers in coronavirus relief package

Changing course, the ride-hailing company is now saying independent contractors should get some of the benefits that employees have.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is asking the federal government to do more to help drivers.

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As the novel coronavirus is increasingly impacting Uber drivers' livelihoods and their ability to get enough rides to make money, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is asking President Donald Trump for help. On Monday, he sent a letter to the White House and to legislative leaders from both parties asking that gig workers be included in the government economic stimulus package.

"I respectfully and urgently request that the economic stimulus you are considering, along with any other future legislative measures in response to COVID-19, include protections and benefits for independent workers, not just employees," Khosrowshahi wrote. "My goal in writing to you is not to ask for a bailout for Uber, but rather for support for the independent workers on our platform and, once we move past the immediate crisis, the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward."

Along with including independent contractors in the stimulus package, Khosrowshahi also suggested updating labor laws to include a new class of worker he called the "third way." He said this new category could "remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers."

This is a marked change for the company. Uber and its gig economy cohorts have spent years fighting to keep their workers classified as independent contractors, which means the companies don't have to pay for employee benefits like health care, overtime and sick leave. A change in the classification of drivers would mean millions of dollars in added costs for the companies.

Asked about Khosrowshahi's letter, the White House said it intends to assist all Americans in need.

"As President Trump has said, we are going to ensure that we take care of all Americans, including affected industries and small businesses," said Judson Deere, White House deputy press secretary.

While advocating for the "third way," Khosrowshahi still warned against making drivers employees.

″Reclassifying these workers as employees could result in the provision of more social protections, but the reality of employment means it would eliminate a key value proposition of this type of work," Khosrowshahi wrote. "Instead of true flexibility -- where workers need not report at a certain time or place, can start or stop working at the tap of a button and can work on multiple platforms simultaneously -- driving or delivering would come to resemble the kind of shift-based work that many people cannot fit into their lives."

As the coronavirus pandemic roils the labor market and health care industry, public health authorities are saying there needs to be a better safety net for vulnerable workers, such as gig workers. Uber and Lyft drivers, along with delivery people for Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates, have been demanding that the companies do more to protect them.

Last week, thousands of drivers signed a petition urging Uber and Lyft to comply with Assembly Bill 5, a California law that went into effect on Jan. 1 and could require the companies to classify their drivers as employees

Uber and Lyft announced expanded "paid leave" policies for drivers infected with the coronavirus last week. Under the policies, if a driver gets diagnosed with the resulting disease, COVID-19, or is put in quarantine by a recognized public health authority, the companies will provide them with financial assistance for up to 14 days. 

To prevent the spread of the disease, both Uber and Lyft also temporarily suspended their shared-rides feature in the US and Canada.

Over the weekend, Khosrowshahi spoke with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other members of Congress from both parties about added assistance for gig workers, according to an Uber spokesman. The CEO is also reaching out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

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