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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: New Washington state law gives Uber, Lyft drivers minimum pay, other benefits

Uber and Lyft driver James Childers is photographed in Spokane Valley on Sunday.  (kathy plonka)
Uber and Lyft driver James Childers is photographed in Spokane Valley on Sunday. (kathy plonka)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

For the last five years, James Childers has driven over 200,000 miles, providing about 12,000 trips for Uber and Lyft passengers in the Spokane area.

Those numbers may seem intimidating, but he loves the job. He said driving full time provides him the opportunity to meet new people, serve the community and see “how the city breathes and moves” – all with the flexibility of working as long as he wants whenever he wants.

But some of Childers’ joy in driving has faded away as his share of the passenger’s fare has decreased over the past few years. He said it’s “been a challenge” to make as much money as he did when he first started driving.

“Expenses just keep going up, but the pay keeps going down and down,” Childers said.

Now, a bill to guarantee minimum pay standards for Uber and Lyft drivers, along with some employment benefits and a dedicated resource center, is on its way to Gov. Jay Inslee after passing the state Legislature earlier this month.

Uber and Lyft have gotten behind the bill, along with some labor unions and drivers themselves.

Jen Hensley, head of government relations for Lyft, told a state Senate committee the bill was a result of “compromise on all sides” and “will improve the lives of drivers” while making sure transportation remains affordable and accessible.

The bill would require ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to provide a minimum amount of compensation for every trip a driver makes. That compensation will increase at the same rate the state minimum wage increases every year. Starting in 2023, drivers in Spokane would get $0.34 per minute plus $1.17 per mile driven with a passenger, or a minimum of $3 per trip – whichever is greater.

Spokane-area driver Ibrahim Mohamed said although he has a job, he drives in his spare time to bring home a little extra money. Though the expenses associated with driving – mainly gas and car maintenance – easily outweigh any income he takes in, he said.

“We drive many hours, use too much mileage on our cars, we clean our cars, we fix our cars and many other things,” Mohamed said. “And when we come up to compare the money that we got, we get very little money.”

Childers said the new minimum compensation provision would help erase those costs.

“It would probably allow me to make a profit,” Childers said.

Companies would have to begin providing drivers paid sick leave in 2023. For every 40 hours a driver spends driving passengers, they accrue one hour of paid sick time. Workers compensation coverage also would be made available to drivers.

The Employment Security Department would be tasked with studying how drivers could participate in the state’s unemployment insurance, paid family medical leave and long-term care programs in the future.

“If I am having a bad day, being able to take a day off and not worry about my compensation for that day certainly will be a big help,” Childers said.

Under the bill, companies would have to provide a process by which a driver could appeal a decision to deactivate their account. That process would be created in coordination with a “Drivers Resource Center,” a nonprofit organization that would be funded by passenger fares and provide services and outreach to drivers.

For Mohamed, access to an appeals process is crucial. He said companies often rush to judgment when receiving complaints from passengers. Companies are quick to deactivate accounts without hearing the perspective of drivers, he said.

“They don’t call us when they make an investigation, they just go and deactivate our account,” Mohamed said.

Two years after he started driving, Mohamed was suspended from the Uber platform after making the mistake of dropping a passenger off in the wrong place at the Spokane International Airport.

He reached out to Uber multiple times to try and explain that the passenger asked to be dropped off there. The fear of receiving bad feedback – in the form of a bad rating or even a complaint – prompted him to do as the passenger asked, he said. But Mohamed said Uber did not listen and told him their decision was final.

Being guaranteed an appeals process “is the kind of protection that we need,” Mohamed said.

“The drivers resource center is going to make a huge impact because now we have somebody that’s willing to speak for us,” Childers said.

The bill also imposes statewide regulations on the industry.

Companies would be required to conduct background checks on drivers, implement zero tolerance drug and alcohol policies and maintain records to be randomly inspected by the Department of Licensing, among other stipulations. The Department of Labor & Industries would be allowed to investigate complaints against companies and assess civil penalties as warranted.

The bill would grant the sole responsibility of regulating companies and drivers to the state with limited exceptions. It would also freeze any fees a city or county collects from companies or drivers – localities can still collect them, but cannot increase them.

According to Brian Coddington, City of Spokane spokesman, drivers must register with the city and hold a city business license. He said the city also collects a 10-cent surcharge per trip on prearranged ride providers like Uber and Lyft.

Aside from questions about the effect on local fees, a staff analysis of the bill shows it “doesn’t significantly impact what the city’s already doing,” he said.

“The regulations proposed here would fall right in line with what the city’s expectations already are of those rideshare drivers and the business registration process that’s expected,” Coddington said.

While Teamsters Local 117, which is based in Tukwila, Washington, and other unions have signed on to the proposal, the National Employment Law Project criticized the proposal as denying drivers “bedrock employment protections” and setting “a dangerous precedent.”

Drivers working for rideshare companies, “as non-employees, cannot access the foundational protections that workers and unions have fought to win and expand over the decades,” Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, wrote in a letter to the state Senate last month. “Washington state should send the message that it will not tolerate attempts to exclude categories of workers from the baseline rights and protections to which all employees are entitled.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, is confident that her bill adequately provides drivers “the same essential protections that workers receive under state law.”

“What we’re doing is working to get these drivers the pay and benefits they’ve been asking for and the deactivation protections they’ve been asking for,” Berry said. “I believe this is a very worker-centric, worker-forward bill.”

Berry said the door is open for the federal government to work with the National Labor Relations Board to reclassify drivers as “employees” of companies like Uber and Lyft. They are currently classified as “independent contractors,” which requires them to pay self-employment taxes and restricts their ability to unionize and receive certain benefits.

As for other “gig workers” – independent contractors who are often hired on-demand for a single task – in different industries, Berry said she is open to talking with them about similar protections. For now, this bill is a step in the right direction for drivers, she said.

“I’m the most proud that this bill is backed by the people who matter most, and that’s the drivers themselves,” Berry said. “I look forward to listening to them in the years to come about how to keep this as a policy that they’re proud of and excited about.”

“This bill will make it so much easier to do what I love,” Childers said.

The bill has been delivered to Inslee and is currently awaiting further action.

Work to watch for

Signalization at Ermina Avenue and Greene Street near the campus of Spokane Community College will close the northbound turn pocket beginning Monday.

The Hatch Road bridge deck replacement off U.S. Highway 195 in the Latah Valley will begin March 30. The bridge will be closed for approximately four months, during which the northbound right lane of U.S. 195 will be closed. Hatch Road will be open from Hangman Valley to the bridge for local traffic only.

The westbound lane of Mission Avenue will be closed between South Riverton Avenue and Perry Street on Monday and Tuesday for Sefnco work.

The northbound and southbound lanes of Howard Street between Riverside and Sprague avenues will be shifted on Tuesday for Cascade Cable work.

The south curb lane of Spokane Falls Boulevard between Stevens and Wall streets will be closed Monday and Tuesday for Cascade Cable work.

Qwest work will close the west curb lane of Monroe Street at Second Avenue and between Fourth and Fifth Avenues on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The east curb lane of Lincoln Street will be closed between Riverside and Main avenues on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for window washing.

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