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A protestor wears a face mask and gloves as Uber and Lyft drivers with Rideshare Drivers United and the
 Transport Workers Union of America conduct a 'caravan protest' amidst the coronavirus pandemic on April 16, 2020. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

New York Uber and Lyft Drivers Sue Cuomo Over Refusal to Pay Unemployment Benefits During Pandemic

"I work hard and follow the rules to support my family. The state should also follow the rules and pay drivers what we are owed so we can survive this crisis."

Julia Conley

Joined by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, four Uber and Lyft drivers in New York filed a lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Labor Department on Tuesday over the state government's failure to provide the drivers with unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board ruled in 2018 that drivers for ride-hailing apps should be classified as employees who are eligible to receive unemployment benefits, yet the drivers say they are facing housing and food insecurity as New York refuses to process their benefits within two weeks as it is doing for other workers.

One of the plaintiffs, M.D. Islam, filed for unemployment benefits in March as New York became one of the hardest-hit cities in the world in the Covid-19 pandemic. He has yet to receive any money.

"I don't want any special treatment. I just want the benefits that the state owes me. I work hard and follow the rules to support my family. The state should also follow the rules and pay drivers what we are owed so we can survive this crisis," said Islam. 

The New York Department of Labor supported Lyft and Uber drivers in 2018 when they fought to be recognized as full employees. Under the ruling, the ride-hailing companies are required to send wage and employment data to the state for their workers as other employers do. 

But the state has instead been demanding that workers send the data to the state—sometimes risking their safety to mail or fax the materials in—during the pandemic.

"These companies need to follow the damn law and stop asking taxpayers to bail them out," tweeted Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation. Uber and Lyft drivers in California are also fighting to receive their unemployment benefits.

"The state is failing to follow its own decision that Uber drivers are employees eligible for unemployment benefits, and is delaying payments in violation of federal law," said NYTWA staff attorney Zubin Soleimany. "Drivers and their union shouldn't have to fight this hard for the benefits that they won in a final ruling all the way back in 2018."

According to the complaint, the state has told some drivers that they are ineligible for unemployment benefits and should apply for pandemic unemployment assistance instead. As the New York Times reported, pandemic assistance would leave drivers with far less income during the crisis, which has drastically cut down on business:

The complaint calculates that [plaintiff Doh "Seydou"] Ouattara’s benefit under the pandemic assistance program would be less than $250 a week, compared with $504 that he would receive in unemployment benefits.

The difference arises because pandemic assistance is based on income net of expenses like gas and maintenance, whereas unemployment benefits are based on gross earnings—or about $26,000 versus about $55,500 for Mr. Ouattara in 2019. Other drivers face similar disparities, according to the complaint.

According to the NYTWA, 82% of Uber and Lyft drivers are now facing food insecurity and 76% were not able to pay rent over the past two months.

NYTWA President Bhairavi Desai called New York's refusal to hold the companies accountable to their employees "shocking."

"The governor and the Department of Labor are allowing Uber, the state's largest private employer, to continue its reign of greed and are refusing to hold the company accountable to the law," said Desai. "Drivers' labor is considered essential by the city, yet their rights are being treated as second-class by a state labor department more concerned with providing a company preferential treatment than making sure workers and their families do not starve through a pandemic."

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