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Opinion: The freedom of work independence, the security of employment benefits

Why not both? It’s being done in Washington; Colorado should be next.

The pandemic has been an unexpected boon for workers. After an initial surge in unemployment, the economy has recovered and now, with a red-hot labor market, workers are figuring out how to demand more from their companies.

Daniel Swannigan

In some cases, this is taking the form of direct confrontation, like the battle between Amazon and its warehouse workers in New York City who voted to unionize, or the Starbucks workers in Boston who did the same. But these wins are far from guaranteed. This month another NYC Amazon warehouse rejected unionization. And often, companies will find ways to make life harder for those who do organize.

So it is interesting to see other workers taking a different approach, deciding to negotiate and collaborate with companies on a better way forward for everyone, rather than battle it out against them for years.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

One example of this actually happened the day before the first Amazon vote — Washington state passed a law mandating the highest statewide minimum wage for rideshare drivers in the country. Drivers there now have access to new benefits like paid sick days, and additional protections, like measures against unfair deactivations.

As a driver with Lyft here in Colorado, I can’t tell you how big of a deal that is. 

This law was a result of months of collaboration, with Uber, Lyft, the local Teamsters union, and Democratic elected officials working to figure out how to provide benefits and protections for rideshare drivers, while maintaining drivers’ ability to have a flexible work schedule.

Colorado prides itself on keeping an open mind, leaning into change and embracing new ways of doing things. It’s kept our state strong for generations and is key to our future. But our labor laws are outdated and work is evolving faster than our laws can keep up. This is leaving rideshare drivers behind in a sort of legal limbo.

As a driver, I’m classified as an independent contractor, not an employee. I like it that way. I have more control over how I work. I drive when I want, where I want and don’t have to answer to a boss. I build work around my life, not the other way around.

Being a rideshare driver and independent contractor helped me put a roof over my head and purchase my first condo in Denver. I enjoy a balanced life while taking advantage of necessary earning opportunities, including volunteering to help seniors and elderly residents in my housing community and prioritizing spending time with my  family.

But being an independent contractor also means Lyft can’t offer me benefits without the risk of making me an employee. Again, being an employee means having less control over my work and answering more to the company. That could mean set shifts, flat, hourly wages, and limits on how much I drive. I don’t want that, and neither do the 75% of Colorado drivers on Lyft, including myself, who would stop driving if they lost their independence.

Drivers in Washington worked to update the state’s labor laws so they could access new benefits and protections without giving up their independence. Uber and Lyft got on board. The Teamsters helped. Legislators listened. 

There’s nothing about that deal that we couldn’t get done here in Colorado.

The independence-plus-benefits model is overwhelmingly popular with drivers. 93% of us drivers support policies where drivers remain independent contractors, with the flexibility they currently enjoy, and be given some, but not all, of the benefits that employees get.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

I’m part of a group of drivers trying to make this happen in Colorado. But we can’t do it alone. We need our elected leaders to work with us to pass legislation that would allow for independence plus benefits. 

Workers still can do big things when we band together. But that doesn’t mean we have to struggle for years against the companies. Drivers in Washington showed us how to negotiate and collaborate for the benefits and protections we deserve. And in Colorado, we see the future and embrace it.

That’s why more and more people are turning to flexible work: it provides them a level of freedom and independence they couldn’t get at other jobs. But as the nature of work shifts, we need our laws to keep up in order to continue protecting workers.

The time is now for this kind of long-term, generational thinking, and we’re asking Colorado’s elected leaders to help us make it happen.


Daniel Swannigan, of Denver, is a Lyft driver.


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