SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) — A group of California Lyft drivers is accusing the company of forcing them to buy their own personal protective equipment to avoid catching COVID-19 at work instead of providing them with enough to do their jobs safely.
It’s the latest conflict in an ongoing labor rights dispute between rideshare workers and so-called gig app companies, including Uber, Doordash, GrubHub, Instacart and Postmates, who classify their drivers, shoppers and couriers as independent contractors rather than employees.
California law requires companies to provide PPE to employees but not independent contractors.
About 100 Lyft drivers from the San Francisco Bay Area staged a protest Wednesday afternoon during which they passed out free PPE to their peers who can’t afford to buy their own. The drivers acknowledge Lyft has provided some free PPE, but they say it hasn’t been sufficient for them to do their jobs safely.
Lyft told CNN Business it spent $2.5 million on free PPE for its drivers in May and has since provided tens of thousands of drivers with free reusable face masks and cleaning supplies.
The handout Wednesday was organized by industry labor advocacy groups Gig Workers Rising, We Drive Progress and Rideshare Drivers United, with funding and additional support from the Service Employees International Union.
It took place less than a week after a Lyft company blog post indicated Lyft would sell cleaning supplies, face masks and partitions to its drivers via its new online store.
Lyft driver Cherri Murphy, 52, who helped organize the handout, said she and other volunteers gave away 60 PPE kits over the course of two hours. The kits included boxes of disposable medical masks and bottles of disinfectant.
“You could feel the body language of appreciation,” Murphy told CNN Business Wednesday. “There are folks out there who are making sure we’re protected and don’t have to pay for stuff that should be given to us.”
Los Angeles Lyft driver Jerome Gage said the company began offering free PPE kits containing one reusable mask and a small bottle of sanitizer about two months ago, but the kit supplies were never sufficient.
“I remember receiving an email and they said I could come down to the hub in LA and pick up PPE at no cost,” Gage told CNN Business. “You could only pick it up once a week and what they gave us wouldn’t last that long.”
Lyft said in an emailed statement to CNN Business that its $2.5 million in PPE spend “included both the 150,000+ PPE items distributed at [company] hubs and the safety kits we started delivering in June.” The company emphasized it doesn’t make a profit off the PPE it sells and said drivers can still pick up free PPE at Lyft hubs in US cities including Oakland.
“We continue to distribute free cleaning supplies and face masks at that hub today,” a Lyft spokesperson said of Oakland on Wednesday. “The Lyft Store is an additional resource to provide millions of drivers across the US easy access to cleaning supplies and face masks that have consistently been difficult to find.”
The larger labor issue
Union advocates and the gig app drivers they support say gig companies are reluctant to provide adequate PPE to their workers because they don’t want to recognize the workers as employees. Doing so would require the companies to pay for additional benefits, including sick leave and employer-funded unemployment and health insurance.
California now recognizes gig-app drivers and couriers as employees, thanks to Assembly Bill 5 being signed into law last year.
Uber and Lyft haven’t complied with the new law since it went into effect in January, according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office filed a lawsuit against both companies in May. The suit came a month after the deaths of three COVID-19-infected Uber drivers in London and two months after a New York Uber driver died from the virus.
Lyft declined to comment about whether its current PPE policy is related to its worker classification dispute.
Workers of color in the gig economy
Activists say this labor fight is inextricably linked with the current national conversation about systemic racism. Several of the Lyft drivers who demonstrated Wednesday also participated in the Strike for Black Lives on Monday.
Black Americans make up about 13% of the US population, but Lyft says 24% of its drivers nationwide identify as Black. San Francisco’s population is only 5% Black but 12% of the city’s gig workers are Black, according to University of California Santa Cruz Professor Chris Benner, the lead author of a recent study on San Francisco’s ride-hailing and delivery workers.
Nearly 80% of San Francisco’s gig employees are people of color, according to Benner’s research. He told CNN Business a majority of those workers of color are immigrants. About 29% are Asian and 23% are Hispanic.
California state assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has been vocal about union rights for gig workers, described Lyft CEO Logan Green’s recent statement of support for Black Americans following the George Floyd tragedy as highly hypocritical and characterized the company’s treatment of its disproportionately Black workers as a form of systemic racism.
“It’s the same exploitation workers of color have experienced for decades,” she told CNN Business.
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