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Rideshare drivers ask: Will they get a fair ride? CT considers task force study to ease their pain

Alex Johnson, an Uber driver and an organizer for Connecticut Drivers United, an advocacy organization for rideshare drivers in New Haven, Connecticut May 08, 2023.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Alex Johnson, an Uber driver for over three years, is also an organizer for Connecticut Drivers United, an advocacy organization for rideshare drivers in New Haven, Connecticut, May 8, 2023.

Alex Johnson drove around New Haven on a late Friday night, ready to pick up passengers in her 2019 Volkswagen Tiguan, right as the downtown bars were packed with college students.

There’s the potential to make money as a rideshare driver, but there are also pitfalls. Some riders who are drunk may get sick in her car. It’s gross but it also means a financial setback for drivers – getting the car cleaned. Her seats are covered just in case.

Then there are the canceled rides and erratic distance-based pay that Johnson said make it difficult to live on her job as a rideshare driver.

So she was hopeful that a proposed bill would make it through the Connecticut legislature. The bill would mandate better working conditions for rideshare drivers. The bill would have mandated minimum pay per ride, reimbursement for canceled rides and other regulations that would help rideshare drivers better shoulder job expenses.

“I literally pray every day for this legislation,” she said.

Johnson is going to have to wait. The bill won’t be considered this year.

Instead, the state legislature is considering setting up a task force to study the problem.

Johnson is also an organizer for Connecticut Drivers United (CDU), an advocacy organization for rideshare drivers. While the bill is no longer being considered this year, Johnson isn’t disappointed.

“Of course, would I have loved if the bill had gotten passed this year, yeah,” Johnson said. “But would I rather take the steps to make sure legislation gets passed than just to have the bill die and nothing happens? Absolutely.”

Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said a study might be created this year and it would more closely examine potential solutions benefiting drivers and customers.

But the task force has not been finalized yet and would also need approval from Gov. Ned Lamont if it moves forward through the state legislature.

Kushner said the bill didn’t work out this session because of lingering questions about how the legislation would benefit drivers. The bill would have mandated greater transparency with itemized receipts for drivers and passengers as well as reimbursement for canceled rides.

Kushner said the mechanisms that would have addressed these issues needed more study. And a task force made up of stakeholders, she said, would reflect a wide variety of perspectives on the issue.

“We are envisioning a task force that would bring together the drivers themselves, representatives of the companies and other experts in the field to help really make suggestions to the legislature about a path forward for these workers in this new gig economy,” Kushner said.

A taskforce to explore the feasibility of such a bill isn't out of the norm, according to James Bhandary-Alexander, a Yale Law School professor and supervisor for the Workers and Immigrant Advocacy Rights Clinic. They worked with CDU on the bill. Task forces, he said, help improve labor legislation by examining potential solutions.

But Lyft and Uber can have an outsized role in the process due to their influence, he said.

"Ultimately, over time, if legislators focus on finding the truth about what's facing Connecticut's rideshare and delivery drivers, they will overcome any fear of upsetting powerful special interests," Bhandary-Alexander said. "It's inevitable.”

Rideshare companies like Lyft issued public testimony opposing the bill. Lyft claimed the bill would hurt people of color due to the necessary raising of rates to offset the added costs.

Johnson criticized those statements, saying it was a cynical use of social justice language to prevent passing a bill that would improve the lives of many nonwhite drivers.

But according to Kushner, that didn’t impact the Labor Committee, which oversaw the bill.

“We pass laws that protect working families here in Connecticut. So that is our goal, that is our charge. And that will always come first,” she said.

Lyft did not answer a request for comment from Connecticut Public.

While the bill isn’t advancing in the legislature, the task force should still give drivers some help, said Soledad Slowing-Romero, a Yale Law School student who has worked with CDU on advocating for the bill.

“While we hoped for greater support for drivers this session, and are disappointed that S.B. 1180 will not be moving forward, we remain hopeful that the task force is a step towards making those substantive changes,” Slowing-Romero said.

Kushner said people know that rideshare drivers are suffering. She said she’s received pay stubs from rideshare drivers. She just wants to make sure legislation tackles the best solutions to address the problems faced by drivers.

“That's really the purpose here is to make sure that we're putting forward legislation that addresses the problems, but really, are the kinds of solutions that will work,” Kushner said.

Johnson, the rideshare driver, said she faces a variety of issues. There’s poor pay. She also deals with rude and misogynistic customers, as well as faces health ailments due to not having ready access to restrooms and sitting in a car seat for hours on end.

Even finding food is a challenge.

“It's one of the two: It's either cheap or fills you up. Cheap is usually gas stations. If I want something that'll fill me up, I try to get maybe a popcorn instead of candy,” Johnson said.

However, soon after Johnson drove around downtown New Haven, her life as a rideshare driver took an unexpected turn. Someone broke into her car, taking her out of commission for the time being.