Ride-share drivers in legal battle with Cuomo administration for unemployment benefits

FILE PHOTO: A car with a Lyft logo in its window drives down a street as the company prepares for its upcoming IPO in New York
A car with a Lyft logo in its window drives down a street as the company prepares for its upcoming IPO in New York, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

The Taxi Workers Alliance is launching a lawsuit against the Cuomo administration and the state Department of Labor for a lack of unemployment insurance benefits for Uber drivers.

Though the push for these benefits to be instated is not new, the lawsuit has a newfound relevance since the COVID-19 crisis has decimated the incomes of drivers who have not been paid out by Uber, according to TWA Executive Director Bhairavi Desai.

“In this kind of an environment, we should not have to file a lawsuit in order to ask our Department of Labor to follow a law and protect workers which the [DOL] is a task both legally, morally and ethically,” Desai said. “We appreciate the fact that [Governor Andrew Cuomo] feels everybody’s pain. What about the pain of poverty and the pain that is coming from violating a basic law by his labor department.”

Nicole Salk with Brooklyn Legal Services argues that the complaint has validity claiming the Social Security Act has been violated as they continue to recognize Uber and Lyft driver as self-employed when the legal precedent deems them to be employees of the ride-share companies. Salk says the state is not providing equal protection under the law.

“Even during this pandemic, even though there has been a lot of problems, the vast majority of folks who are regular W2 employees whose employers do the right thing and report their wages and contribute to the system as all employers must do to make this system work it falls down,” Salk said. 

Most for-hire drivers have to go through a reconsideration application process in which they need to find fax machines to submit their claim, something Salk says is “cumbersome” and lengthy under non-COVID-19 circumstances.

“Most people give up, frankly, because it’s so difficult,” Salk said. “It’s a scary thing to sue the government and it’s a really scary thing to sue a popular governor, but it’s something we have to do.”

In 2016, for-hire drivers went to court and won recognition in court as employees of the apps they work for and not self-employed and therefore entitled to unemployment benefits. Four years later, Desai says their status as essential workers has not come with the basic right they fought for to begin with.

Jack Sterne, an administration spokesman, told amNewYork Metro that the state had delivered $10 billion in benefits to 2 million New Yorkers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, a different approach to relief that he said is meant to serve all workers during the crisis.

Processing more than 100,000 PUA applications per week, Sterne said the state is providing more unemployment funds per capita than any other state.

“During this pandemic emergency, we have been moving heaven and earth to get every single unemployed New Yorker their benefits as quickly as possible — including Uber and Lyft drivers who are treated no different than any other worker and, during this crisis, are receiving unemployment benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program quicker than most other states. New York launched our Pandemic Unemployment Assistance application weeks before other states.” 

According to Desai, the TWA knows of at least 51 drivers who have died from COVID-19.