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The Technology 202: Coronavirus raises the stakes in new court fight for gig worker benefits

with Tonya Riley

The coronavirus pandemic is lending the battle over Uber and Lyft's classification of its drivers fresh urgency. 

California is suing the companies for allegedly breaking a landmark state law that went into effect earlier this year that would reclassify many gig workers as employees, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports. Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is among the California attorneys bringing the suit, said the ride-hail companies are preventing drivers from enjoying many worker protections and accessing safety net programs by continuing to classify them as independent contractors. 

While the companies have successfully batted down such challenges for years, this one could stick. 

There is growing public awareness of how drivers and other gig economy workers are taking on essential roles in a pandemic society, as other transportation systems shut down and people are unable or afraid to do even basic tasks such as grocery shopping. 

And the coronavirus crisis is shining a light on how these workers have more hurdles to accessing unemployment, and lack core legal protections and healthcare benefits despite the health risks they are taking on.  

Becerra said the surge in unemployment claims and demand for sick leave that makes drivers' fight for greater benefits more consequential than ever before.

“Sometimes it takes a pandemic to shake us into realizing what that really means and who suffers the consequences,” Becerra said in a statement. “Uber and Lyft drivers who contract the coronavirus or lose their job quickly realize what they're missing.” 

The coronavirus crisis has hit gig workers hard. 

Many ride-hailing drivers saw their regular income disappear overnight as stay-at-home orders rock their businesses, making it impossible to ferry people to and from offices, airports or nightlife. Drivers still working are taking on health risks by shuttling health-care professionals to work, or delivering food to people through the company's Uber Eats service. 

But they've struggled to obtain even basic protective gear from the companies, even as Uber promised last month to ship masks and disinfectant sprays to drivers. 

And Uber and Lyft drivers do not have mandated sick leave because of their work classification. The  companies have taken steps to expand sick leave during the pandemic, but drivers have raised concerns that it's difficult to access. 

“What it's done is laid bare more the consequences of allowing companies to opt out of the social safety net,” Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told me. “For a lot of workers, those consequences have been very apparent for a while. What's happening right now is the public is being forced to see this in a different way when there is such a groundswell of workers who are dealing with those consequences all at the same time.” 

Gig workers have struggled to obtain the unemployment benefits Congress promised. 

Congress ensured that gig workers — such as Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts — were eligible for unemployment benefits under the coronavirus relief package. Until then, many gig laborers weren't eligible because companies don’t remit payroll taxes to the government on behalf of on-demand drivers. 

But critics say the bill was essentially a bailout to Big Tech. Becerra said the companies were shifting the burden onto taxpayers by not paying into unemployment or providing their workers other benefits such as healthcare. 

“But it’s not just these workers who lose, Becerra said. “American taxpayers end up having to help carry the load that Uber and Lyft don’t want to accept.”

Yet drivers have reported major issues or delays in accessing unemployment, despite their new eligibility for the benefits. States did not have the systems in place to review claims from these workers. And drivers reported problems obtaining earnings data and other basic information from the companies for their applications.

Activists who have long called for better protections for drivers praised the actions of the California attorney general, as well as attorneys from other major California cities who are also bringing the suit. Nicole Moore, an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United, said drivers have been building to this moment with activism like last year's strike. 

“This is a huge moment,” Moore said. “If we can enforce basic labor law for these tech companies, they can become companies that are helping our economy, helping create good jobs. Those are the types of tech companies that we need.”

But Uber argues the legal challenge could hurt job creation during an economic crisis. 

“At a time when California’s economy is in crisis with four million people out of work, we need to make it easier, not harder, for people to quickly start earning,” Uber spokesman Matthew Wing told Faiz. 

Lyft spokesman C.J. Macklin said in a statement, “We are looking forward to working with the Attorney General and mayors across the state to bring all the benefits of California’s innovation economy to as many workers as possible, especially during this time when the creation of good jobs with access to affordable healthcare and other benefits is more important than ever.” 

Protect App-Based Drivers and Services, a coalition funded by companies including Lyft and Uber, has already mobilized against the lawsuit. The coalition says it underscores the need to pass a November ballot measure that would counter AB5, the California gig worker law. 

Our top tabs

Airbnb will lay off about a quarter of its 7,500 employees. 

Airbnb anticipates earning under 50 percent of last year's revenue, Alex Wilhelm at TechCrunch reports. It's a stark reversal of fortune for the company, which had announced it would go public sometime this year. 

The global layoffs will affect company initiatives to move into hotel and luxury books, chief executive and co-founder Brian Chesky wrote in a note to staff.

Twitter will test alerting users know that their language may be "offensive or hurtful" before they reply to a tweet.  

The feature, which is being rolled out on a trial basis for English-language users, will allow users to edit their tweets after the warning. It's a proactive step toward addressing ongoing problems of harassment and hate speech on the platform.

 “We’re trying to encourage people to rethink their behavior and rethink their language before posting because they often are in the heat of the moment and they might say something they regret,” Sunita Saligram, Twitter’s global head of site policy for trust and safety, said in an interview with Reuters's Elizabeth Culliford.

Twitter already prohibits some forms of hateful speech. But advocates say the company doesn't do enough to prevent abuse. It's unclear how much the new button, which allows but does not force users to change their message, will help. 

NBC News's April Glaser said:

Parking lots have become a digital lifeline to Internet users who previously relied on libraries, schools and cafes for access. 

Users are driving hours for access in some cases, demonstrating how the coronavirus has exacerbated the country's digital divide, Cecilia Kang at the New York Times reports.

In cities including Philadelphia, Sacramento and Omaha, school leaders and government officials have encouraged users to access WiFi from library and school parking lots.  

The lengths to which users have had to go to get access during the pandemic highlights the need for better and cheaper broadband in the United States, some advocates say. Democrats in Congress have pushed in recent weeks to greatly expand broadband funding in the next coronavirus relief package.

“I hope that there is a lesson learned from this,” said Gina Millsap, the chief executive of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. “Broadband is like water and electricity now, and yet it’s still being treated like a luxury.” 

Hill happenings

The top House antitrust lawmaker urged congressional leadership to suspend mergers during the coronavirus.

“Although this is a time of anxiety and despair for the vast majority of Americans, some see the present crisis as an opportunity ripe for exploitation,” he wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). 

Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and nine other House Democrats signed on to the letter.

More news from the Hill:

A $5 Billion Proposal to Fight Online Child Sexual Abuse (The New York Times)

Inside the industry

Facebook took down dozens of U.S.-based accounts pushing coronavirus conspiracy theories.

The accounts were part of two networks linked to the Q-Anon fringe conspiracy and white supremacist websites VDare and Unz Review, the company said in a monthly report

QAnon, which is centered on a conspiracy theory of a deep state that seeks to overthrow President Trump, pushed false conspiracies that Bill Gates and 5G networks caused the outbreak. VDare and Unz used content with anti-Semitic and anti-Asian themes.  

Facebook discovered the networks while investigating suspected inauthentic coordinated behavior ahead of the 2020 elections.

The takedowns show that domestic actors are learning from foreign influence campaigns, says Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook.

Facebook also took down hundreds of fake Iranian social media accounts targeting voters in the United States and the United Kingdom.  

Some of the pages, which were run by Iran's state broadcaster, were active in the 2012 Republican primaries,  researchers at the network analysis firm Graphika found. Many of the accounts had low followers but used the same kinds of content as other Iranian networks Facebook has taken down. 

Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, said:

More industry news:

Pinterest flags slowing ad spend as quarterly loss widens, shares fall (Reuters)

Tinder will launch in-app video chats later this year (The Verge)

Rant and rave

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and his girlfriend musician Claire Elise Boucher, who goes by Grimes, announced the name of their baby boy. And it's exactly what you would expect.

The explanation, from Grimes:

It probably isn't worth debating how this is pronounced. But that didn't stop the Internet from trying.

Or maybe this?

One user did some actual (Wikipedia) sleuthing to guess what the name meant:

Musk liked the tweet. 


Barack Obama to Celebrate Graduating Seniors in at Least 3 Events (The New York Times)

This Pandemic Is Lonely. But Don't Call Loneliness an ‘Epidemic’ (Wired)


  • Lyft, Square and Paypal report earnings today.
  • Uber reports earnings on Thursday.

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