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Politicians demand answers from gig economy companies on driver safety

Penned by Massachusetts Democrats, letters call for more transparency on efforts to protect drivers

A group of Massachusetts politicians are demanding answers from rideshare and delivery companies on efforts to extend health and safety protections to workers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A group of U.S. senators and representatives from Massachusetts have written letters to the CEOs of Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Grubhub, demanding answers to questions regarding the health and safety of their app-based workers.

The letters, dated May 31, request answers to seven questions by June 21. Most of the questions focus on the health and safety of the workers, but the group also requested an answer to whether app-based delivery workers are required to sign an arbitration agreement to work for the company.

“App-based delivery workers are some of the most vulnerable workers in our economy, but DoorDash has not sufficiently protected and supported them in the face of a global pandemic, increasing violence, and economic instability. Your refusal to grant them basic insurance and benefits, even in the face of death on the job, and despite their key role in your business, is unacceptable. Going forward, we strongly urge you to prioritize the health and safety of your employees,” the letter to DoorDash CEO Tony Xu stated.

Gig companies under microscope

Similar letters were sent to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Lyft CEO Logan Green, Instacart CEO Fidji Simo and Grubhub CEO Adam DeWitt.

“While we strongly disagree with the misleading and inaccurate claims made in this letter, we could not agree more about the importance of safety. We care deeply about Dasher safety, and we’re committed to helping them stay safe,” an emailed statement from a DoorDash (NYSE: DASH) to Modern Shipper said. “We welcome the opportunity to engage with policymakers on the unique value many Dashers find in delivery work, as well as the efforts we’ve made to protect and support the millions of people on our platform.”

The letters were signed by Massachusetts Democrat Sens. Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and U.S. Reps. Stephen F. Lynch, Seth Moulton and Ayanna Pressley. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders also signed the letters.

The legislators’ demands

The congressional contingent also included the following requests for information:

  • Please identify how and when your company classifies an app-based delivery worker as working.
  • Please provide the following safety incident information, including breakdowns of each answer by the race and gender of drivers:
  • Does your company notify app-based delivery workers of ongoing on-the-job emergencies or dangerous situations that could affect their health or safety?
  • Does your company notify the family members or next of kin of an app-based delivery worker who dies on the job while working for your company?
  • Has your company paid any compensation to, or has a company insurer paid any claim on behalf of, an app-based delivery worker or their family for injury to or death of the worker on the job while working for your company?
  • Does your company offer a form of occupational injury protection or accident protection to your app-based delivery workers?

The letters point to a Gig Workers Rising report that noted at least 50 app-based delivery workers have been killed on the job since 2017. The letters note that app-based workers are the “reason that … app-based delivery companies collect billions of dollars each year in revenue” and say that the companies’ “failure to properly categorize … app-based delivery workers as employees means that app-based delivery workers are essentially left on their own.”

Watch: Massachusetts seeks to define the gig economy

Instacart told Modern Shipper it was “closely reviewing the letter” and looked forward to responding.

DoorDash clarifies its position

DoorDash said the letter it received confuses the role of Dashers, who do not pick up passengers, and that 97% of female Dashers and 95% of male Dashers prefer delivery over rideshare because they believe it’s safer. It added that Dashers are not required to follow specific routes, as the letter states, but are free to follow any route they wish and can also decline any delivery they are offered with no penalties. There is no minimum acceptance rate, the company said.

DoorDash also noted that 90% of Dashers in surveys prefer to remain independent contractors and the company is working to help develop flexible programs in Massachusetts to ensure Dashers receive the protections they deserve. The company also offers occupational accident insurance at no cost to Dashers, which it said protects them in case of injury while performing a delivery, and in 2021, it enabled SafeDash, an in-app toolkit powered by ADT, to allow Dashers to seek help should it be needed.

Grubhub and Lyft (NASDAQ: LYFT) had not responded to requests for comment by publication time. Inquiries to Blumenthal and Warren were also not returned.

Drivers penalized

The letters question the companies’ penalties to drivers who turn down assignments.

“No driver should face punishment for legitimately declining a ride or delivery they believe would place them in a dangerous situation. Higher pay would also reduce the pressure on drivers to accept rides they deem unsafe,” the letter to DoorDash stated.

The letters point to unnecessary risks to drivers.

“Every day, ride-share drivers repeatedly interact with strangers, leaving them vulnerable to violent assault and even death,” the letters stated. “App-based delivery work can pose significant dangers for drivers. During a single day, a ride-share driver may pick up dozens of strangers and travel to remote and unfamiliar locations.”

Uber and Lyft have both previously released safety-related data from their platforms and drivers. In a statement to Modern Shipper, an Uber spokesperson said the company continues to invest in safety initiatives.

“We received this letter and look forward to sharing more about our industry-leading safety features and processes,” the spokesperson said. “Given the scale at which Uber operates, we are not immune to society’s challenges — that’s why we continue to invest heavily in new technologies, programs, and partnerships focused on improving driver safety, including through the release of the industry’s first comprehensive safety report, an in-app emergency button with 911 integration, Follow My Ride live location sharing, and much more.”

Gig worker status on the ballot

In Massachusetts, a worker classification initiative modeled on California’s Prop 22 is scheduled for the November ballot. Voters would decide whether rideshare drivers and other gig economy drivers should be classified as independent contractors. There are provisions in the initiative regarding minimum compensation levels and liability protection.

However, state judges may kill the initiative before it ever makes it to the ballot. According to a report in Bloomberg Law in early May, judges are “wary” about whether the ballot initiative meets the requirements to be on the ballot. A state law requires initiatives to be focused. Activists, led by Martin El Koussa as lead plaintiff, have argued that “the petitions do not comply with article 48 [a state law on initiatives] because they contain multiple subjects that are not related to or mutually dependent on one another.”

According to the Bloomberg report on a May 4 hearing, M. Patrick Moore, who represents the contractors challenging the initiative, described the heart of the issue. “They jam all of these concepts together under the same banner of worker classification,” Moore said, according to Bloomberg. “To link all of these things together is an initiative of a breadth that has never been presented to this court. No proponent has ever tried to link all these issues in this way.”

The Massachusetts ballot initiative is backed by Uber, Lyft and DoorDash.

Massachusetts’ independent contractor law is based on the same ABC test that Prop 22 successfully sought to dodge for gig workers. The ABC test in California was put into force through the state’s AB5 law, but Prop 22, which was approved by voters on Election Day in 2020, exempted gig-based drivers from the rule.

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected].