'We Can't Take Your Call': Uber Drivers, Other Gig Workers Struggle For Unemployment

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 8:21 pm

Music is jazz composer Michael O'Dell's passion, but it doesn't pay the bills. So he drives for Lyft and Uber in Columbus, Ohio.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, demand for rides has fallen so much, he says, that on many days he can't get enough business to make it worth getting in the car.

"I have really cut my driving down probably like 90%," he said. "If I do need available cash to pay a bill or two or even buy food, I'll go out and drive for a little bit. But I definitely don't put the time into it like I normally did, because I'm not going to get good rides."

O'Dell and millions of other people who make a living from gig work — like driving for Uber or renting rooms on Airbnb — now have a lifeline. They are temporarily eligible for unemployment benefits, thanks to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which became law in March.

But many states are struggling to help this new class of workers.

"I've been applying every week," O'Dell said. "Every single week I get denied regular unemployment."

That's because Lyft and Uber don't consider themselves to be his employer. The companies say their millions of drivers are independent contractors who choose when and how much to work.

Many apps operate this way, from the ride-hailing companies to grocery delivery services DoorDash and Instacart. That decision has big consequences for workers.

"Normally, if you're eligible for unemployment insurance, it's because your employer has been paying into the insurance system, and as part of paying in, they're reporting your earnings," said Jay Shambaugh, director of the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project.

Because the apps do not do this, gig workers have to show proof of their earnings, so the state knows how much to give them in unemployment benefits. In turn, states have to set up systems to process those claims — which Shambaugh describes as "the big holdup."

According to the Hamilton Project, 39 states and the District of Columbia are now processing those claims. But it is taking a long time for payments to go out.

Jerome Gage, a Lyft driver in Los Angeles, applied for unemployment in early March because his income had dropped so much.

"They said, 'Based on your reported earnings from Lyft and Uber, your [award] is zero dollars, because your employee earnings were zero dollars,'" he said. He has appealed and is awaiting a decision.

In many states, unemployment offices have been overwhelmed by the crush of workers who have lost their jobs — 36.5 million in the past eight weeks. Congress gave states $1 billion to hire more staff and upgrade their outdated computer systems, but many are still scrambling to keep up.

"As it turns out, that billion dollars was maybe not quite enough to process initial claims," said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. "The increase in funding is a 50% increase ... but the increase in claims is a thousandfold."

That wait has dire consequences for people whose lives are already precarious. In Decatur, Ga., attorney Mary Irene Dickerson of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society has seen an uptick in calls about eviction notices.

"Then it turns out that the problem is that they've been waiting for their unemployment claims to be determined — waiting weeks," she said.

She said gig workers are facing especially long waits because Georgia requires them to apply for regular unemployment and be denied — a process that can take weeks — before they can apply under the expanded eligibility provision of the CARES Act.

Back in Ohio, Michael O'Dell is trying to stay hopeful. The state launched its system to accept claims from gig workers this month, and O'Dell has been calling the office to check on his status.

"It always ends up hanging up on me, saying, 'We are overloaded at this moment. We're sorry, we can't take your call.' Click, bye," he said.

He said he has no choice but to keep trying.

Editor's note: Lyft and Uber are among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Uber drivers, the Airbnb hosts, the dog walkers - they are the millions of people who make a living from gig work. Thanks to a massive federal relief package, they are temporarily eligible for unemployment benefits. But the unemployment system was not built for gig work, and so many states are struggling to help this new class of workers. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond reports many of them are still waiting for their money.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Michael O'Dell is a jazz musician in Columbus, Ohio. But music doesn't pay the bills, so he drives for Lyft and Uber. And since the pandemic hit, he only goes out when he needs cash right away.

MICHAEL O'DELL: I definitely don't put the time into it like I normally did because I'm not going to get good rides.

BOND: Unemployment benefits should be a lifeline for gig workers like him, but O'Dell hasn't seen a check yet.

O'DELL: I've been applying every week. And every single week, I get denied, like, regular unemployment.

BOND: Denied because Lyft and Uber don't consider themselves his employer. They say their millions of drivers are independent contractors who choose when and how much to work. That's how many apps operate, and that means they don't do what a normal employer does. Jay Shambaugh, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explains.

JAY SHAMBAUGH: Normally, if you are eligible for unemployment insurance, it's because your employer has been paying into the insurance system. And as part of paying in, they're reporting your earnings.

BOND: Gig workers have to show proof of their earnings so the state knows how much to give them in unemployment benefits. And Shambaugh says most states have to set up systems to process those claims.

SHAMBAUGH: That's been the big holdup, figuring out how they track who is supposed to get this money.

BOND: It's been more than seven weeks since Congress made gig workers eligible for unemployment. And according to Brookings, 39 states are now processing those claims. But even those who got their claims in really early are still waiting, like Lyft driver Jerome Gage in Los Angeles. He applied for unemployment in early March.

JEROME GAGE: And they said, based on your reported earnings from Lyft and Uber, your reward is zero dollars because, you know, they said your employee earnings was zero dollars.

BOND: Gage appealed. He's still waiting.

In many states, unemployment offices are overwhelmed by the crush of workers who have lost their jobs. Congress did give the states a billion dollars to help them hire more staff and upgrade their outdated computer systems. But Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project says the number of people claiming benefits has increased a thousandfold.

MICHELE EVERMORE: As it turns out, that billion dollars was maybe not quite enough to process initial claims.

BOND: For some people, the wait has dire consequences. Mary Irene Dickerson is a legal aid attorney in Decatur, Ga. Last week, she heard from a client who was about to be evicted. Dickerson gave her some advice.

MARY IRENE DICKERSON: But I also said, why couldn't you pay your rent? And she had applied for unemployment. She had gotten one check for $336 and had not gotten any more weekly benefit checks at all.

BOND: Dickerson is hearing a lot of stories like these from gig workers and other people who desperately need help.

DICKERSON: We're starting to get a lot of eviction calls. So it comes in as an eviction call, then it turns out that the problem is that they've been waiting for their unemployment claims to be determined - waiting weeks.

BOND: Back in Ohio, Michael O'Dell is trying to stay hopeful. This month, the state finally launched its system to accept claims from gig workers. He's been calling the office to check in on his status.

O'DELL: Based on your social security number, they give you a number to call. And so I've been calling that number. I tried to pick a different number to press to try to get further, but it always ends up hanging up on me, saying we are overloaded at this moment. We're sorry we can't take your call - click, bye.

BOND: He says he has no choice but to keep trying.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.