The second of two stories focused on the battle over gig drivers’ rights.
Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart have poured millions of dollars into promoting a ballot question and related legislation that would formally establish the state’s 200,000 drivers as independent contractors with unlimited flexibility and limited benefits. Labor advocates are pushing back hard, insisting that drivers are entitled to state employment protections and that the gig industry is attempting to save money, and avoid liability, by skirting Massachusetts law. The tech companies maintain that making drivers employees would force them to put drivers on set schedules, or possibly even pull out of Massachusetts all together — arguments opponents claim are baseless and meant to scare drivers into supporting a position that creates a system of second-class workers, the majority of them people of color, that could spread to other industries. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is considering whether the proposed ballot question is unconstitutional and should be thrown out.
Here are the stories of two drivers on either side of the debate.
Carlos Soares spent almost two weeks in early December 2020 struggling to breathe as he battled COVID and pneumonia in an Attleboro hospital. He didn’t feel well enough to get back on the road driving for Lyft and Uber until the middle of the next month.
Soares thought he’d be taken care of. Lyft had promised drivers COVID sick pay based on their hours, and he’d been driving eight to 10 hours a day, transporting medical staff and other essential workers. But the pay put into his account — $250 — was “a slap in the face,” Soares said: “Enough to say, ‘Here, shut up.’ "
This experience, along with being briefly deactivated twice for what he said were false customer complaints, persuaded Soares, 56, to join a group of app-based workers fighting for a driver bill of rights — and opposing an effort by the companies that would keep drivers from getting full employment protections.
“We are at their mercy,” Soares said. “Right now we’re not treated like humans ... we’re treated like a program.”
Soares started out part time in the fall of 2017 while he was working at a manufacturing plant in South Easton. But when he developed back problems and could no longer be on his feet for hours, he started driving full time, just as the pandemic exploded. “I was one of the few drivers out there,” said Soares, who grew up in the Azores and speaks with a slight Portuguese accent.
Soares, a five-star Lyft driver, takes his job seriously. Waiting for passengers in a Logan Airport lot on a warm May afternoon, he wore a white button-down shirt and black pants, his salt-and-pepper hair trimmed short. His seven-passenger 2020 Buick Enclave was spotless.
Soares makes more money driving than he did at the plant, he said. The size and quality of his car allow him to take XL and Lux customers, who pay more. But he seethes when he sees the difference between what passengers pay and what he makes — one customer complained about a $160 ride, of which Soares was paid $69. (Lyft said driver pay isn’t directly tied to rider fares, which fluctuate depending on driver supply and rider demand. The company also noted that Soares was eligible for unemployment and a paid sick leave tax credit when he had COVID.) After a year of working 40 to 60 hours a week — except for the eight weeks or so that he was out dealing with COVID, kidney stones, and a colon infection — and deducting the cost of gas, insurance, mileage, tolls, oil changes, car washes, and interest on his $530-a-month car loan, his 2021 income was about $50,000.
Recently when Soares’s car was in the shop, he was stuck with a loaner for six weeks. Since he wasn’t allowed to pick up passengers in that car, he cobbled together delivery jobs for Amazon Flex, DoorDash, and Uber Eats instead. Having paid time off or other assistance would make a big difference, he said. And having employer-provided health insurance would keep him from relying on the “handout” of MassHealth, which he feels is an unfair burden on taxpayers.
The companies’ proposal includes paid sick and family leave, accident insurance, and a health insurance stipend, but Soares doesn’t trust their offer, and he’s adamant about having the right to form a union.
But it’s hard to win over drivers when so many are convinced that becoming an employee would doom their flexibility. Surely the companies that developed sophisticated algorithms for matching drivers to passengers can figure out how to award benefits without requiring a set schedule, Soares said.
“They’re distorting the issue,” he said. “It’s not in their best interest for us to have a voice.”
Prossie Namanda is all for having a voice. She’s just using hers to ensure that her flexibility doesn’t go away.
Namanda, 39, who is from Uganda, started driving full time for Instacart after she was laid off from her job transporting patients to medical appointments when the pandemic hit. Not long after she started, she drove herself to the hospital to give birth to her sixth child (the five older ones are in Uganda), then drove herself home to Waltham and was back scouring the grocery aisles within a month.
“I’m an African immigrant,” she said matter of factly. “You’re by yourself. ... You don’t expect anybody to show up and give you a hand.”
Namanda relies on a frail 85-year-old neighbor to watch her daughter —the only caregiver she can afford, she said — and Namanda comes back between orders to change her daughter’s diapers.
“I can’t trade flexibility for anything,” said Namanda, who also works overnight shifts in nursing homes and picks up home health care jobs when Instacart is slow.
At a legislative hearing in March, Namanda pleaded tearfully with lawmakers not to take away her ability to help care for her baby. For the many drivers who can’t afford traditional day care, having the freedom to check in on their children is crucial, she said later: “Truthfully, truthfully, this is the life.”
Between all her jobs, she estimates she works about 100 hours a week.
On a recent day, Namanda, decked out in sparkly sandals and a soft gray blazer, a Bluetooth headset around her neck, delivered her daughter to her caretaker, who lives in the same housing development. She carried her toddler down the basement stairs, where the caretaker sat on a bed beside a washing machine, colorful rugs covering the concrete floor. Back outside, Namanda scrolled through available Instacart orders, scoffing at the idea of driving six miles during rush hour to pick up seven items at Wegmans to earn $16.63.
Early last year, Namanda got into an accident while she was making a delivery and totaled her car. The insurance money wasn’t enough to pay off her loan and buy another car, so she borrowed money from church members to buy a $3,000 Honda Accord with peeling paint. She didn’t bother telling Instacart: “Everything that’s your loss is your loss,” she said.
“You have to figure out how to survive in this game.”
Namanda, who has a bachelor’s degree in education from a university in Kampala, is the first face you see on the industry-backed website. But she conceded that the advocates trying to get more protections for drivers are “absolutely right.” The companies are taking advantage of the workers, she said, particularly immigrants who may not fully understand the issue or be willing to push back against an industry that’s providing some of the best jobs available for those with limited English. “The companies know the kind of people they have, so they know how to exploit them,” she said.
Still, Namanda doesn’t want to take a chance on losing her flexibility. “In life,” she said, “we have to weigh options.”
And sometimes, she said, you have to go with the one that seems less risky — even if it’s not perfect.