In December, Uber’s CEO asked the governors of all 50 states to give the ride-hailing company’s workers priority for the coronavirus vaccine. The company sent a similar letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s a profoundly cynical move. Uber and friends just spent over $200 million on California’s Proposition 22, a successful ballot initiative to exempt themselves from basic employment laws (paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, workplace safety requirements), in exchange for a seriously slender benefits package.
Now Uber and friends are pushing this model at the federal level and in other states. (They already tried in 2018 to exempt their workers from Colorado’s workplace laws; they’ll surely take another swing now.)
In this context, Uber’s advocacy for vaccine priority reads more than anything like a company seeking replacement parts for its machinery, not caring for its people.
To be sure, workers for gig companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart are among those who should be prioritized for the vaccine: they’ve risked their health enabling others to stay safe. This truth should make policymakers and the public even more reluctant to strip them of rights — and skeptical of companies’ slick claims about “portable benefits” as a trade-off.
In fact, the “portable benefits” included in Proposition 22 are a case study in the gap between what gig companies are selling, and what they’re ultimately giving workers. When the gig companies come calling in Colorado (and in any other state), lawmakers and the public should look behind the curtain in relation to what happened in California.
Dissecting just one example of the gap between promise and reality illustrates the problem. The most shimmering benefit included in Proposition 22 is framed as a health care subsidy. Like cotton candy, it’s eye-catching, but largely disintegrates when you probe a little.
The promise: Workers who meet one of two thresholds of “engaged time” (15 or 25 hours on average per week) in a calendar quarter will receive, for each month of that quarter, 50% or 100% of California’s average monthly Affordable Care Act contribution.
The subsidy is less than it seems. Proposition 22 defines the “average” health insurance premium as 82% of the average premium. You read that right: they promise 100% of something and then define 100% as 82% of that same thing. The subsidy is also based on California’s lowest “Bronze” tier of coverage, which comes with this warning: “[B]e prepared to possibly spend more than $8,000 when you access care.”
The subsidy is artificially depressed by the definition of work time. “Engaged time” under Proposition 22 covers only about two-thirds, and probably less, of people’s work time. It excludes time spent cruising and available, returning from a distant drop off, or cleaning or gassing up a car. As a result, a worker would likely have to put in at least 23 hours to qualify for the lower (“15-hour”) subsidy level and 38 hours for the higher (“25-hour”) level. Also, missing one week because of illness could cause a driver to miss the threshold number of hours needed for coverage.
There’s a chicken-and-egg problem: the subsidy is only available if you already have health insurance. Presumably, people need the subsidy to help buy insurance in the first place. But they can’t get the subsidy without proof of insurance. Also, workers won’t get the subsidy until long after monthly health insurance premiums are due.
The subsidy doesn’t apply to common types of existing insurance. If workers have, for example, employer-provided insurance through a spouse or second job, they won’t receive the health care subsidy at all.
In sum, workers will get a subsidy based on two-thirds of work time, that covers at best 82% of 100% of California’s lowest-tier plan. They’ll get that money long after their health insurance premiums are due, and only if they’re already covered by health insurance, but it has to be exactly the right kind of health insurance.
Given these nickel-and-dime limitations, how much will workers actually receive? No one knows. Uber’s CEO wrote that the “portable benefits” his company would have provided in Colorado would total $1,350 per year. Frankly, it’s unclear if the average subsidy benefits in California will even add up to this much.
One could argue that a possible $1,350 is better than nothing. But those aren’t the only choices. The real question: Is it worth trading away everything employees receive in exchange for maybe $1,350? The clear answer is no, even based on the money alone.
For example, unlike under California’s Proposition 22, employees must be paid for all work time, not just artificially chiseled “engaged time” that omits one-third of their labor.
Consider that employees who lost their jobs and qualified for unemployment insurance received benefits in 2019 averaging $449.23 per week in Colorado. Just a few weeks of such benefits would exceed $1,350.
Colorado and other states should resist companies’ campaign to deprive workers of employee protections. Most serious experts agree that low-wage workers are far better off as employees than as atomized and unprotected independent contractors.
That ship may have sailed for many gig workers in California. But it’s not too late for Colorado, or anywhere else.
So yes, these essential workers should be in line ahead of me, and lots of other people, for the vaccine. But they’re people, not machinery, and deserve so much more.
Terri Gerstein is the director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, a Harvard Law School program focused on research, teaching and creative problem solving related to the world of work and its implications, and a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. She previously was a labor-law enforcer in New York state government.
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