Uber drivers will get minimum wage protection for the very first time

CXXXIV

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A living wage.

New York City voted this morning to enact a first-of-its-kind pay floor for ride-hail drivers, who as independent contractors aren’t protected by state or federal minimum wage laws. The pay standard approved by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission aims to raise drivers’ take-home pay to $17.22 an hour, and gross hourly earnings to $26.51, an increase of 44%. The new pay floor could raise annual wages for 70,000 professional drivers in the city by as much as $9,600. The rules take effect in 30 days.

The taxi commission’s actions came amid a devastating string of suicides by professional drivers in New York City. Eight drivers have died by suicide since late 2017: Roy Kim, a yellow cab owner and driver; Fausto Luna, an Uber driver; Abdul Saleh, a yellow cab lease driver; Yu Mein Kenny Chow, a yellow cab owner and driver; Nicanor Ochisor, a yellow taxi owner and driver; Danilo Corporan Castillo, a Bronx livery driver; Alfredo Perez, a Bronx livery driver; and Douglas Schifter, a black car driver. A common theme in each case was economic despair and a sense of betrayal by politicians and regulators who had allowed the yellow cab industry to be steamrolled by companies like Uber and Lyft. Castillo wrote his suicide note on the back of a taxi commission summons. Schifter shot himself in front of City Hall.

The pay standard approved by the taxi commission makes use of a clever formula devised by economists James Parrott and Michael Reich in a July report on driver earnings commissioned by the city. The key to the formula is a “utilization rate” that adjusts the amount drivers are paid per mile and per minute to account for how much work they are getting each hour. The simple brilliance of the formula is that it puts the burden on ride-hail companies to ensure their drivers are getting enough work. If too many cars are on the road, causing a driver’s utilization rate to fall below the number set by the taxi commission, then companies pay more to make up the difference. (For more on the pay formula, see my explainer in Quartz from July.)

The expected pay raise for drivers is even more dramatic than the one Parrott and Reich initially calculated after the Independent Drivers Guild and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance successfully lobbied the taxi commission to adjust its expense estimates for drivers, which they said were much higher than initially assumed. The pay formula includes “out of town rates” that pay drivers extra for miles they drive outside city limits. The taxi commission this morning also voted to reduce credit card processing fees for yellow and green cabs to $7 per shift from $11.

It is notable that New York City and its driver advocacy groups have succeeded in ushering in what promises to be a material improvement to driver livelihood while other efforts to do that—a driver union in Seattle, employment classifications lawsuits in the UK and around the US—remain mired in litigation. We talked a couple weeks ago about a research paper on gig work from the Center for Global Development that argued that “the focus should be on improving the working conditions of independent workers… rather than continuing to pretend that regular, formal, contracted employment is the way that people—particularly youth—want (or even should want) to earn a living.”

The driver pay floor passed by New York City is a version of this thinking. Half a decade of arguing over whether Uber drivers should be contractors or employees has done little to improve their lot. These pay rules don’t pretend to answer that question. Instead they ask a more fundamental one—are drivers able to earn a living?—and, having answered it with a resounding no, set about changing the circumstances. Every city in the US should be watching, and thinking about whether to follow.

“Leave it anywhere.”

Bird is being sued for trespass in a class action complaint filed Nov. 30 by John Lautemann, a property owner in Santa Monica. Lautemann is suing Bird for trespass and nuisance, alleging the dockless electric scooter company is harming property owners, “as e-scooters are flagrantly left on their property or in an unsafe manner on the sidewalks adjacent to their property.”

The crux of Lautemann’s allegations is that Bird is “prioritizes users’ convenience over property owners’ rights,” with a policy that encourages Bird users to pick up and drop off their scooter “anywhere.” The complaint includes a screenshot of the Bird app in Apple’s app store that advertises this policy, which I’ve circled in red below:

The complaint argues that Bird’s $2 billion valuation is premised on this leave-it-anywhere business model. This is (1) because the dockless model makes the service more convenient for consumers, who can end a ride at their destination rather than a parking hub several blocks away, and (2) because the costs of running a docked scooter service would be significantly higher, between the price of installing docking stations (tens of thousands of dollars a piece) and cost of redistributing scooters from empty ports to busy ones throughout the day.

While Bird is getting rich—or at least a rich valuation—off this setup, Lautemann’s attorneys argue that its haphazardly parked scooters are cluttering up roads and walkways. The lawyers allege these actions are “exposing property owners to potential legal liabilities and burdening property owners with removing Bird’s e-scooters from their property or adjacent sidewalks.” Bird wasn’t available to comment.

Lautemann claims Bird scooters have repeatedly been left on his property since this past summer, “in the area reserved for parking cars, near the entrance to the building, in the courtyard, and in the corridor.” The company “did not seek consent from Plaintiff before operating in the area.” It’s unclear whether Lautemann asked Bird to remove the scooters, and his lawyers didn’t reply to a request for comment. But, the complaint asserts, “Bird e-scooters are GPS-enabled, so Bird knows or should know that e-scooters have been placed on private property without obtaining consent.”

This is an interesting argument, with implications much broader than scooters on sidewalks. There are arguably lots of things that a technology startup or any company that collects data on its product and users “knows or should know,” where “should know” seems to mean “should know by virtue of having the data.” Bird knows or should know where scooters are left; Airbnb knows or should know when properties are rented illegally; Amazon knows or should know when banned products are sold on its site; Facebook knows or should know when fake news is distributed. The Bird complaint is, in that sense, a microcosm of the debate over what responsibilities technology companies have as custodians of our data. Electric scooters just make it a little more tangible, relatable, and easier to follow.

Cruise control.

Imagine you are a police officer patrolling a highway at around 3:30 in the morning. You notice a Tesla Model S cruising at 70 miles per hour and, upon pulling alongside it, are shocked to discover its driver is deeply and totally asleep. Do you:

(a) Take the next exit—this isn’t your problem

(b) Turn on your lights and siren, roll down all your windows, and blast Ariana Grande at full volume in hopes of rousing him

(c) Pull in front of the Tesla and force it to a stop

(d) Hang out of the windshield and bang on the Tesla driver’s window while steering the car with your foot, like Angelina Jolie in Wanted

The correct answer, according to state highway patrol officers who found themselves in this exact situation on Highway 101 in Redwood City, California, last month, is (c):

Deducing that the Tesla Model S was running on Autopilot, the officers called for backup and prepared to employ a stratagem.

After a second unit caught up to block any traffic coming from behind, the original car sped up to get in front of the Tesla, then gradually slowed to a stop.

The cameras and computer algorithms of the vehicle’s self-driving system did their job, slowing to avoid ramming the officer’s car.

Several miles from the first contact, the Tesla slowed to a full stop just north of the offramp at Embarcadero Road.

People like to talk about how driverless cars could change pedestrian behavior because, unlike those driven by humans, self-driving cars will in theory automatically stop for anyone who steps in front of them. This could, for example, lead to more frequent jaywalking, or to standoffs where pranksters stand in front of driverless cars and force them to a stop for the novelty of it.

A parallel scenario is how a self-driving car would respond to a similar maneuver by another car. So far, driverless vehicles are generally more cautious than their human counterparts, leading many of them to be rear-ended. The highway patrol officers, whose names weren’t released in a Nov. 30 incident report, took clever advantage of this deferential behavior to force the Tesla and its unconscious driver to a stop.

The incident feels like a win for Tesla, which claims all its vehicles, including the Model S, are equipped with hardware for “full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver,” but which has also been involved in several high-profile crashes. Teslas reportedly operating on Autopilot have hit a firetruck, hit a parked police car, and crashed fatally on Highway 101. On the other hand, we are probably more likely to hear about situations in which Autopilot gets a car into a scrape and generates a police report than ones in which Autopilot narrowly avoids an incident—unless of course police use the system to safely pull the car over.

Flex work.

I mean, this is one way to see it, I guess:

The linked article is “Creative delivery driver in KCK sheds 100 pounds with her at work, work-out.” The lead is “Jackie Crow jogs and smiles when she delivers Amazon packages from her car to front porches.” Crow, the article explains, decided to make her job a workout three years ago, when she weighed 300 pounds and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She decided to change her diet and become more active. “I don't want to be in an office... and Amazon was the missing piece that I needed to stay active,” she told KSHB. She lost 100 pounds in 18 months. Inspirational story or Black Mirror Episode? You be the judge! (It was, in fact, the premise of a 2015 segment in Comedy Central’s Nathan For You.)

I am reminded of this article by the great Jia Tolentino, “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death.” Her article opens with a similar bit of cheerfully dystopian corporate press: the story of a nine-months-pregnant Lyft driver who kept her app on after her contractions began, and completed a ride request en route to the hospital. The story was published on Lyft’s blog with three exclamation points and a call for readers to respond with similarly “exciting” Lyft stories. (The original post is no longer available, but was published in full by Gizmodo.)

Here is Tolentino:

Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication—the latter being, perhaps, hard to come by in a company that refuses to classify its drivers as employees. Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit—taking ride requests while she was in labor!—is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.

And:

It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. 

Dystopian doublethink, it seems, is right up Amazon’s alley.

This time last year.

Uber operated covert intelligence unit, Lyft cuts losses, China’s bike-share graveyards

Other stuff.

Uber exploring deal to buy Bird or Lime. Restaurants in India losing appetite for food delivery apps. Portland converting 1,000 parking spaces to bus and bike lanes. Berlin-based Wind Mobility gets $22 million for e-scooters. New York food delivery workers boosted by yuppie millennials. Instacart shoppers threaten strike over alleged pay cut. UberEats test lets restaurants trade discounted food for promoted placement. WeWork and Amazon pause Alexa for Business partnership. Uber hires NHTSA veteran. Airbnb will sell houses in 2019. “Fire officials in Bloomington say a fire in garbage truck Tuesday was caused by an electric scooter left in a dumpster.” San Francisco proposes nixing parking requirements. Waymo plays it safer. Amazon is selling software that mines patient medical records. New York state senator proposes ban on real estate “insider trading.” Robot janitors are coming to a Walmart near you. Uber Marketplace. Uber Is Headed for a Crash. Advice for men in the #MeToo era: “Just try not to be an asshole.”


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