By MALLORY GRUBEN
Tom Bui wants to grow his family. New benefits for rideshare drivers in Washington will give him paid time off to welcome a new baby.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1570 May 15 to make Washington the first state to extend unemployment insurance and paid family and medical leave to Uber and Lyft drivers. Because drivers are classified as independent contractors, they previously were not eligible for unemployment benefits. They could access the state’s paid leave system, but only if they opted in and paid the premiums on their own, unlike workers at other large employers.
HB 1570 makes drivers with “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft eligible for unemployment insurance, and, starting July 2024, creates a 3.5-year pilot program where the companies will reimburse drivers for any paid family leave premiums they pay. It builds on 2022 state legislation that set the highest wage floor for drivers in the United States, added safeguards against unjustified termination, and gave access to worker’s compensation insurance and paid sick time.
“We believe that workers deserve access to public systems of benefits and protections,” said Kerry Harwin, spokesperson for Washington Drivers Union. Washington Drivers Union is a worker-led coalition affiliated with Teamsters Local 117 that works to defend rights and raise standards for the state’s more than 30,000 Lyft and Uber drivers. It supported HB 1570, along with Uber, Lyft, and the state Employment Security Department, which oversees the benefits programs.
Bui, 39, lives in Vancouver and drives full-time for Uber, working 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day. The rideshare job gives him the flexibility to spend daytime hours with his 6-year-old son Tim.
“He’s diagnosed with developmental delays,” Bui told the Labor Press by email. “I chose this kind of work so that I can be home with my little Tim more.”
Before he started driving for rideshare apps about six years ago, Bui worked a 9-to-5 job in sales. He used paid family medical leave provided through that job to take time off when Tim was born, he said. He’s excited to have access to the program again for his second child.
“It would be best to be there with my wife during her pregnancy and labor but still get paid for the time,” he said.
Jennifer Heinlein, another Vancouver-based driver, said she wants to see Oregon lawmakers pass similar legislation. That would extend the benefits for drivers who live in Washington but make frequent trips across the border to take passengers to the airport.
“A lot of my rides do go into Portland, and I don’t want to go into Portland because my benefits stop,” she said.
Once she enters Oregon, Uber is no longer required to follow the Washington wage standards. That means her pay drops — sometimes half or more.
“So we are hoping Oregon jumps on board soon,” she said. Heinlein, a single mother, started driving for Uber about six years ago for the flexibility to care for her daughter, who has autism. Prior to that, she worked in banking and owned her own business.
As a rideshare driver, she learned that independent contractors pay higher self-employment taxes and must cover their own benefits — if they can afford them at all. The temporary expansion of unemployment benefits to independent contractors during the pandemic was a “massive blessing” for her when schools shut down and she had to homeschool her daughter. She expects the permanent program to be a vital lifeline for other drivers.
“To survive right now without those kinds of benefits, it’s almost impossible,” Heinlein said. “We need someone that’s willing to do these jobs…. And we need to take care of them too.”