Labor advocates wary of classification bill despite support from gig workers

A recent poll shows ridesharing drivers want to maintain their flexibility

A majority of drivers – nearly 69% – said they prefer maintaining their schedule flexibility over receiving typical employee benefits.

A majority of drivers – nearly 69% – said they prefer maintaining their schedule flexibility over receiving typical employee benefits. d3sign

While a recent poll shows rideshare drivers favor flexibility over reclassification, labor advocates are skeptical of legislation that seeks to classify gig workers as independent contractors and to establish portable benefits for app-based workers. 

Uber and other app-based companies have thrown their support behind worker classification legislation like Senate Bill 949. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Devlin Robinson, a Republican from Allegheny County, would classify app-based workers as independent contractors. Additionally, the legislation would establish a portable benefits fund and provide benefits such as income replacement and workplace insurance to member companies in the commonwealth. 

A recent Cygnal poll asked Uber drivers statewide about their work and what they value the most. A majority of drivers – nearly 69% – said they prefer maintaining their schedule flexibility over receiving typical employee benefits.

Gabe Morgan, executive vice president and the Pennsylvania/Delaware state director for 32BJ SEIU, said having proper benefits and a flexible work schedule aren’t mutually exclusive. 

“There is not an inherent conflict between flexibility and ‘union benefits,’” Morgan told City & State. “In this case, what they’re talking about are things like unemployment, wage and hour violations and discrimination. These aren’t ‘union benefits’ – they’re workers’ rights. And to say some workers would rather have no rights so they can be flexible – that policy doesn’t make much sense.”

Under Robinson’s bill, member companies within the commonwealth would make quarterly contributions in an amount equal to 2% of the annual worker earnings and would also be required to purchase occupational accident insurance for all app-based workers. 

Morgan expressed concerns about the marginal benefits of the bill, stating that no other industry would consider a proposal that would weaken the benefits of its workers and possibly make them ineligible for other benefits. 

“You can’t imagine these other big employers saying ‘Listen, we did a poll and it turns out that no health care workers want any worker rights, they want flexibility,’” he said. “The company wants the flexibility of not being burdened with (recognizing) workers’ rights.”

The Uber driver survey, conducted from the end of May into June, shows strong support for SB 949 among drivers in the commonwealth. According to the poll, about 64% of Pennsylvanian Uber drivers want to remain independent contractors and the vast majority say their main attraction is being able to set their own hours. The same poll found that 30% of drivers say joining a union is important to them, while 42% said it was unimportant to them. 

Lawrence Cmar, a Navy retiree based in the Pittsburgh area, agreed that his current situation as an independent contractor is perfect. Cmar said he drives Uber around the city every morning for supplemental income. 

“The whole appeal to this is, people can stop and start so they can go to their other jobs, they can pick up their child from day care and they can make a little extra income on weekends and at night,” Cmar said. “The appeal of this is because it’s not unionized.” 

Echoing some of the calls of Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg, Morgan said SEIU would favor legislation that holds employers accountable and ensures workers are classified correctly. 

State Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Democrat from Allegheny County, has previously criticized app-based companies, such as Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Grubhub, for fighting to keep drivers designated as independent contractors. 

“These app-based employers have used their power over their employees to push this misclassification agenda,” Williams said at an April press conference

Williams said lawmakers should instead pass legislation that adds teeth to the state’s Construction Workplace Misclassification Act by enhancing penalties for misclassification and requiring the Department of Labor & Industry to refer cases to the Office of Attorney General if a contractor violates the law more than once. 

Robinson couldn’t be immediately for comment on his legislation, which currently sits in the Senate Labor & Industry Committee.