Rideshare and delivery workers deserve the right to bargain their wages and benefits

By Naomi Ogutu, Founder and President of NYC Rideshare Club

The pandemic has shown every rideshare and delivery driver the power and control Big Tech has over the lives of workers like me — and that we need a real safety net for times of crisis. Big Tech and app companies have been exploiting rideshare drivers for too long. As we emerge from an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, keeping the status quo is a win for corporations.

As one of 140,000 rideshare drivers in New York state, I don’t have the basic freedom to join with other drivers to negotiate over the wages and benefits that I need to have a better life — a freedom I urgently need. The pandemic taught me that having a voice in my workplace is a matter of survival. That’s why I support the historic Right to Bargain bill, which will give New York rideshare and delivery drivers what every other worker here has: a safety net and the right to join a union and collectively bargain over our pay and working conditions.

Naomi Ogutu

I have worked as an Uber and Lyft driver for more than five years, struggling to make ends meet even as I provide essential services to my community. There aren’t a lot of jobs that provide flexible schedules for immigrants like me. As a single mother of three, I need the flexibility of app work so I can work when my children are in school.

Even before the pandemic it was clear drivers needed a real voice for improvements to our wages and working conditions. . The app companies constantly change the rules for drivers in ways that keep us from earning a living wage — including shirking existing minimum wage laws. Being at the whims of Big Tech has left me struggling to make ends meet; and the status quo will keep me here.

Over the last two years, they have found every possible way to avoid paying drivers fairly. Even locking me out of the app for all but a few hours per day, leaving me suddenly unable to work the hours I need to survive. Suddenly the apps were locking me out during school hours. New York City rideshare drivers invest thousands of dollars per year just to be licensed and insured and my vehicle lease alone costs $600 per week, so I need to work every hour I can. Because of the app company lockouts, my income dropped 80 percent and there was nothing I could do about it. And I wasn’t alone, thousands of drivers across New York City were suddenly locked out of our livelihood. Drivers need a real contract, a union contract so that the companies can never do that to us again.

When COVID-19 hit New York, I was reminded again how vulnerable drivers are at the mercy of app companies. Suddenly there was no school. So how could I work? Like so many other parents, I really couldn’t. But unlike most New York workers, I didn’t even know if I would get unemployment benefits. The Right to Bargain bill will mandate that app companies participate in New York’s unemployment program so that gig workers like me will have the safety net we need.

When I could get childcare, I wanted to go to work serving my community and driving essential workers, but driving during the pandemic was nerve-wracking. I wouldn’t work without a mask, but there were none to be found and Uber and Lyft weren’t providing them. To stay safe, I needed to provide my own mask and have masks for my passengers. I decided to launch a fundraiser for masks with my organization: NYC Rideshare Club and we ordered some from Pakistan, but the shipment was blocked due to COVID-19 restrictions. Our masks never arrived. We are still waiting for shipment. Uber provided a few, but it wasn’t enough. Luckily, the Independent Drivers Guild worked to secure masks and I volunteered to help distribute PPE kits to tens of thousands of drivers. But over a year into the pandemic, the rideshare companies still aren’t providing adequate PPE. They still refuse to pay us for all the time it takes to clean our vehicles between every trip — and without collective bargaining rights and a union, we have no recourse to address this. It is past time to provide rideshare and delivery workers who have been doing essential work in the pandemic a say in the safety conditions of our workplaces.

I support the Right to Bargain bill. Rideshare and delivery drivers in New York need and want the rights that unionized workers already enjoy: a collective voice to negotiate better pay, benefits, and improved workplace conditions that we can directly bargain for ourselves. We can’t afford to wait.

Recently, some elected officials have claimed to support gig workers like me — but they don’t respect us enough to trust us to know what’s best for ourselves. Some legislators have come out in opposition to the Right to Bargain bill, because they believe they know better than drivers. They tell us that they will pass other laws to help drivers and delivery workers, but have done nothing.

The Right to Bargain law is the first step to bring dignity to our workplaces and to strengthen an essential workforce. We are fighting to get critically needed job protections like access to consistent wages, state unemployment, and discrimination protections — and in this legislation, we have a vehicle that can give us those protections now. Legislators have a choice: trust us, respect us, and help us by supporting our Right to Bargain — or maintain an exploitive status quo that hurts us.

Naomi Ogutu has been an Uber and Lyft driver in NYC for more than 5 years. She is the founder and President of NYC Rideshare Club. She is a single mother of three.