Fight for Fair Pay for Uber and Lyft Drivers Continues as Drivers Remain at the Frontline of Pandemic

by Elizabeth Turnbull


This year, public focus on Uber and Lyft drivers has shifted to their role in providing essential transportation during the global pandemic. In that regard, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s announcement last week, where she will transmit legislation to the City Council which would raise the minimum wage for rideshare drivers, is the most recent move in a nuanced fight for better wages.

The mayor’s announcement on Aug. 13 is part of her Fare Share Plan, and if the legislation is passed by the City Council, it would require Uber and Lyft drivers to be paid Seattle’s minimum wage of at least $16.39 per hour.

In September of last year, Durkan unveiled her Fare Share Plan which involves taxing Uber and Lyft $0.51 per ride in order to pay drivers the city’s minimum wage and to establish an independent Driver Resolution Center for drivers and to also put millions of dollars into affordable housing near transit and to complete the Center City Connector streetcar project.

In November of 2019 the Seattle City Council unanimously approved this plan, which involves paying drivers Seattle’s minimum wage by January 1, 2021.

In response to the recent transmission of legislation, Lyft sent a statement to the Emerald, which called the Mayor’s proposals “unworkable” and said that it would require Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) to double-pay drivers who are using more than one rideshare or delivery platform or to pay people for simply having the app open. Overall, Lyft sees the proposal as “misguided regulation” with the potential to push rideshare companies out of Seattle.

Prior to this step, both the Mayor and Uber and Lyft sought out data on the current income and expenses of rideshare drivers in Seattle in order to determine whether or not, and to what degree, the current earnings of TNC drivers should change. This part of the story appears somewhat controversial.

On July 7, two reports were published, one requested by the City of Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, and one commissioned by Uber and Lyft. Both reports detailed how much TNC drivers in Seattle earn, but both produced different findings, raising ethical and methodological questions around the studies.

“Neither research team, and their respective report, is neutral,” Kevin Schofield, who writes the  SCC Insight blog, said in a post about both reports. “Both were hired to present a certain skew, regardless of whether they admit it, and both delivered that in their analysis.”

Ethical concerns surrounding the Uber and Lyft study pertain to how the corporations paid Cornell University $120,000 to provide the research, although the researchers working on the report maintained that this money went to the university and not those working to produce the data.

From data provided in this study, Lyft has asserted that their “typical driver earned more than $23 per hour.” However, researchers on the project say that the main takeaway from the study is that the median hourly pay for full-time drivers stood at $18, as half the drivers in the study made more than this and half the drivers earned less than this amount.

On the other hand, the City of Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards contracted Dr. James Parrott of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School to lead the research for their report, conceivably with the knowledge that he had produced a very similar report in 2018 for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission when the commission was looking to establish a minimum driver pay standard, as noted by Schofield.

Ultimately Parrott’s study found that, after expenses, the average Uber or Lyft driver surveyed for the report netted a wage of $9.37 per hour. However, due to reluctance from Uber and Lyft  to share company data with the city, the data in this study was instead derived from a survey of Uber and Lyft drivers which the city commissioned from a company called PRR, Inc.

In addition, Schofield’s analysis shows that Parrott’s study reports a greater percentage of full-time workers. Parrott’s study says that a third of TNC drivers in Seattle work full time, while the study commissioned by Uber and Lyft, and presumably derived from the companies’ data, stated that this number was actually 15%.

The overall process of obtaining higher wages and worker rights for TNC drivers may not be as complicated as filtering through debatable data sets, but it hasn’t been a simple process either.

In December of 2015, the city passed an ordinance to allow Uber and Lyft drivers some collective bargaining rights. In 2017, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce successfully re-filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, disputing the ordinance, claiming that it was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and alleging that the ordinance allowed for driver wages to be illegally price-fixed, among other things.

The City Council amended the ordinance in 2019 to no longer allow for collective bargaining pertaining to negotiating compensation, and in April of this year, all parties including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Uber, and the City of Seattle agreed to end the lawsuit, and the case was officially dismissed.

Durkan’s announcement last week marks the latest event in the saga for changes to TNC drivers’ wages.

Despite the conflicting data regarding how many Uber and Lyft drivers utilize the service as their primary source of income, this year all TNC drivers have been on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic at a time when the death rate from COVID-19 among Black Americans is currently twice that of white Americans, which raises concerns for many Black drivers.

For Lata Ahmed, who is from East Africa and is a member of The Drivers Union — an association of drivers who work for various TNC companies and which is affiliated with the Teamsters Local 117— now is a very important time for TNC drivers to have financial security.

“We are at the front lines of both the economic and public health front of this crisis while the cost of living is higher,” Latah Ahmed said. “Drivers are wondering how to pay even rent and put food on the table of their families.”

Ahmed is a lead organizer in the campaign to raise pay, and he says the highest priorities among the drivers he organizes around are fair pay, protection from deactivation (where drivers are abruptly cut off from using the app), and the drivers’ solution center where TNC drivers can go to address any issues they are facing.

Ultimately, Ahmed believes that Uber and Lyft are trying to squash drivers’ efforts to work toward higher wages. But he believes the corporations’ efforts won’t be successful.

“We as drivers, we say: ‘When we fight, we win,’ and that is our aim,” Ahmed said. “And indeed, we are going to win, and this company is never going to challenge us on this journey.”


Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.

Featured image is attributed to Tati Tata under a Creative Commons 2.0 license