Gig News: NYC Drivers Group Accuses Lyft of Wage Theft

Yesterday, a New York Assembly Member and the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) called for an investigation into ride-hailing company Lyft for allegedly cheating drivers out of certain wages. They claim the company is deducting New York State sales taxes and a “Black Car Fund” surcharge on interstate rides, even though they are only supposed to be applied to rides that both begin and end within the state. When drivers confronted Lyft about the mistaken charges, the company claimed they were other administrative costs, not taxes—even though they were the same exact rates as the actual taxes.

Lyft denies the charges, according to the Washington Post, claiming that it is completely upfront with drivers about what commissions and fees apply.

The letter was penned by Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez, who represents areas of East Harlem and Randalls and Wards Islands. The IDG is an affiliate of the Machinists Union and advocates for ride-hailing drivers in New York City. IDG had a controversial start: it serves as a critical outlet for drivers and is recognized by companies like Uber, who have agreed to meet with the group every month; however, it is partially funded by Uber, and part of the deal involved a promise from the Machinists Union to refrain from attempting to unionize the drivers for five years. As one piece highlights, IDG has taken full advantage of this deal—largely to the benefit of its member-drivers.

Though their press release highlights instances of Lyft’s overcharging, they also call for the state to investigate similar companies—e.g., Uber and Juno—for the same misdeeds. The action comes at the heels of last week’s revelation that Uber had been underpaying its New York drivers over two-and-a-half years, taking a cut of commission before taxes and fees, instead of after.

Today’s News & Commentary — January 17, 2017

Donald Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzer, may be having second thoughts about taking the job following intense criticism of his nomination.  CNN reports that Puzder “has voiced second thoughts in recent days, because of a relentless barrage of criticism from Democrats, labor unions and other liberal groups, a business ally and GOP sources tell CNN.”  Puzder is apparently discouraged by the required paperwork and attacks on him by Democrats, organized labor and worker advocates.  At the earliest, Puzder’s confirmation hearing would be next month.  In response to the report, Puzder tweeted that he looks forward to his hearing.

Meanwhile, Trump’s plans to increase American jobs through increased American production of goods continues to generate significant skepticism.  With respect to production of iPhones, according to technology site BGR, “if iPhone factories came to the US, you can be sure that robots would be the only ones getting more jobs.”  Any increased American production would reflect that the “relative cost of skilled labor in the US and China is such that it’s cheaper to build a robot than it is to hire one US worker to replace one Chinese worker in the supply chain.”

Education increasingly defines the ability of Americans to succeed economically.  The Associated Press notes that “Americans with no more than a high school diploma have fallen so far behind college graduates in their economic lives that the earnings gap between college grads and everyone else has reached its widest point on record.”  College-educated workers have disproportionally benefited from new jobs and wage increases following the 2008-09 Great Recession, and are far more in demand by employers.  The education gap is most significant for white men, but is true across the board, and developing the skills of non-college-educated workers is critical.

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Today’s News & Commentary — December 29, 2016

One of the nation’s largest labor unions is preparing to respond to Trump with less.  Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Eidelson reports that an internal memo shows the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is planning a 30 percent budget cut over the next year.  The memo cites fear that a Republican-controlled federal government will enact policies that impede collective bargaining.  The SEIU represents 2 million workers nationally and has been spearheading the Fight for $15 movement.

Trump’s chosen Secretary of Labor similarly inspires concern that the federal government will be hostile to workers outside of the collective bargaining relationship.  Accoring to Mother Jones, a review of old interviews shows that Andy Puzder has previously complained on the record about overtime rules and protective regulations, calling workers “overprotected” and questioning the need for mandatory breaks.

Workers in New York State can at least have confidence in their state government.  The National Law Review reports that the New York State Department of Labor has amended minimum wage regulations to increase the salary basis threshold for executive and administrative employees, irrespective of the status of a similar planned increase of the federal threshold.  The new thresholds in New York depend on employer size and whether the employer is located in greater New York City .

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Today’s News and Commentary — December 6, 2016

New York City is on the verge of passing historic legislation that would pave the way for representation of fast food workers by advocacy organizations.  According to Buzzfeed, “the law would require fast food employers to automatically deduct fees from the pay checks of workers who choose to be represented.  The money would go a member organization of their choosing, tasked with advocating on the worker’s behalf.  It looks and sounds an awful lot like a union, in an industry where unionization is all but impossible under the current system.”  Notably, such a law would allow for worker representation without overcoming the substantial obstacles to unionization of fast food workers.  Organizations would not represent workers in collective bargaining negotiations, but would be able to organize and lobby on their behalf.  Payroll deductions would “look more like recurring donations than union dues, with workers able to choose how much they wish to contribute from each paycheck.  Organizations receiving the funds will need to be non-profits, registered with the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, that advocate on behalf of workers.”  Council members expressed confidence that the legislation will pass.

Amazon is on the verge of significantly automating retail shopping, by announcing plans to open a grocery store with no cashiers or checkout lines.  Quartz reports that Amazon “will open a grocery store in Seattle, Washington, in early 2017, where customers will be able to walk in, pick up the items they want to buy, and walk out.  To achieve this, Amazon will launch an app called Amazon Go (also the name of the store) which hungry customers will use to register that they’re in the store.”  Given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are nearly 3.4 million cashiers employed in the United States, such automation could have a significant effect on jobs.  CNBC notes that the New York Post ran a front page today calling Amazon’s foray “the end of jobs.”  Business Insider predicts that such automation will be much more difficult for President-elect Donald Trump to counter-act that the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and represents much more of a threat to jobs than outsourcing.

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Today’s News & Commentary — October 25, 2016

After a 20-day strike, Harvard University and the union representing its dining services workers have reached a tentative agreement on a new five-year contract.  The strike has attracted considerable campus, local, and national attention to difficulties faced by low-wage workers facing seasonal unemployment and untenable health-care costs.  According to The Harvard Crimson, to be ratified by workers the tentative agreement “must first be sent to a 30-member bargaining subcommittee Tuesday” before “the full membership of dining workers in the union vote on the deal Wednesday.”  UNITE HERE Local 26 President Brian Lang told The Crimson that workers could return to work as early as Thursday, but declined to provide details about the agreement but said it “accomplished all of our goals.”  In an email to the community, Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp said said the new contract “represents a fair and reasonable resolution to negotiations” and addresses the core issues of wages and health care.  More from The Boston Globe.

The Department of Labor’s new overtime regulations almost doubling the salary threshold below which workers must receive time-and-a-half will take effect December 1st, and commentators are already hypothesizing how employers may respond to their new responsibilities.  In commentary in Time, Professor Daniel Hammermesh of the Royal Holloway University of London argues that employers “will cut weekly hours of previously exempt workers who had been working more than 40 hours per week, but that cut will be small enough so that those workers’ weekly earnings will increase” and thus “employees will work less but make more.”

At least one major union head isn’t happy with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected on a platform of supporting organized labor.  The New York Daily News published an op-ed authored by John Samuelsen, president of the 39,000-member Transport Workers Union Local 100, criticizing Mayor de Blasio for his record on organized labor since taking office.

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Today’s News & Commentary — September 5, 2016

Happy Labor Day! While many of us are celebrating (or mourning?) the end of summer and the start of the school year, we cannot forget today’s main purpose: to honor American labor movements. But how did it all start? The answer is grounded in a history of violent union busting, bloody revolts, and plenty of cynicism, as The Week documents. Sarah Jaffe in the Los Angeles Times uses this history to draw parallels between Labor Day’s origins in state-sponsored violence and the Black Lives Matters movement today.

Labor Day also happens to be a nice opportunity for the media and politicians to talk extensively about workers. Jon Schwarz at The Intercept argues that unions are critical to a thriving middle class—an argument echoed by Jared Bernstein in the Washington Post. President Obama has a thing or two to say about the importance of unions too, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez is using today to continue a conversation about improving workers’ lives. NPR is using today to cover the state of women in the workforce, boiled down to three main points: underrepresented in politics, growing numbers of graduates and business leaders, still paid less. And though today is a holiday to honor workers, USA Today takes a look at how Americans these days are taking less time off—41% of employers have employees working today, and just under half of Americans did not take a single day of vacation in 2015.

Union members are still a powerful voting bloc, and both presidential candidates find themselves participating in union events in Cleveland, Ohio, today in order to help secure the workers’ vote. Former president Bill Clinton will march in Detroit’s annual Labor Day parade, a common stop for Democratic stars, according to the Detroit Free Press.

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 12, 2016

According to a report published Wednesday by Oxfam America, workers in the U.S. poultry industry are under such pressure on the processing line that they are routinely denied bathroom breaks. As a result, some workers have taken to wearing diapers to make sure that they can take care of their basic needs without drawing the ire of their supervisors. In response to the report — which is titled No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry — the National Chicken Council insisted that it was “troubled by these claims,” but also characterized the report as “paint[ing] the whole industry with a broad brush based on a handful of anonymous claims.” Yet VICE News observes that Oxfam’s findings “are the result of three years of research, hundreds of interviews with current and former poultry workers, medical experts, and worker advocates, and are in keeping with other studies on the same subject.” For example, a 2013 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that 80% of surveyed poultry workers said that they were not allowed to take bathroom breaks when they needed to take them.

What might the new association for Uber drivers in NYC mean in the long run? The New York Post editorial board contends that the “compromise could be the beginning of the end of Uber” if it eventually leads to a full-fledged drivers’ union. The Post insists that “[a] true union would be death to Uber’s business model, which relies on drivers to work as independent contractors, not unionized employees.” This model, the Post argues, is essential because it helps Uber keep fares low and provides drivers with the flexibility to choose their own hours.” And ensuring that “[e]very customer gets service from a self-employed professional, not a clock-puncher” is a matter of critical importance, or so says the Post: “If ever there was a cause for progressives to champion, saving the app-based firms is it.”

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