Lawmakers press ahead with Uber legislation

By March 1, 2017 March 2nd, 2017 Business, State Government, Transportation

Taxi drivers in Budapest protest Uber in 2016. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Ride-sharing company Uber left Alaska in 2015, agreeing not to return until a state law was in place that exempted the company from paying workers’ compensation insurance for its drivers.

Now, three state legislators are leading the effort to lay the groundwork for the company’s return, including a measure moving through the House and one in the Senate.

An Uber commercial from 2016 depicted a young guy splitting his time between his regular job, occasional Uber driving and just hanging out.

But for many drivers, Uber is a full-time job.

Drivers can work up to 40 hours per week — sometimes more — without being considered a full-time employee.

It’s become a point of contention between drivers and the company in some cities, but there is still high demand for ride-sharing.

“A while ago, I’d have friends and constituents come up to say we need Uber, can you get Uber up here … So, I think there’s a demand for it,” said state Rep. Adam Wool. “I was in Seattle. I took Uber one way and a cab the other way, and there was really no comparison.”

Wool is joining state senators Mia Costello and Anna MacKinnon in an effort to bring Uber, and companies like it, back to Alaska.

Wool’s bill is nearly identical to the one in the Senate. Both classify drivers that work for Uber and similar companies as independent contractors.

That doesn’t sit well with Barbara Huff, who handles legislative affairs for Teamsters Local 959.

“Our concern with the bill is with respect to removing them from worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance and other employee-employer related benefits,” she said. “We’re not anti-Uber or anti-Lyft, we just want to make sure that the workers are protected.”

Huff said there’s no way her union will support a bill that doesn’t count Uber drivers as employees.

In an interview, Wool, a former taxi driver, pointed out that taxi drivers are also independent contractors, meaning they too are exempt from things like workers compensation.

His vision of Uber is more in line with the commercial from 2016.

“Taxis usually are contracted to drive 12-hour shifts, and if you drive for Uber of Lyft you can drive whenever you want or not drive whenever you want,” he explained.

As in other states, the taxi industry also opposes the Uber legislation, but for different reasons.

Juneau Taxi owner James Harris is concerned about the future of his business, but he also thinks that all drivers, not just his own, will be worse off if Uber comes back to Alaska.

“We’re already not very busy, and then you add several drivers going after those same customers. So, their drivers will get less. Our drivers will get less. And then before you know it, and this is well documented, these guys are making minimum wage,” he said. “Everybody around is going to start losing money, except for Uber.”

In recent years, Uber drivers across the country have protested over wages as the company has slashed fares.

Huff pointed to one case in Seattle, where the independent contractor issue spurred an ongoing legal battle over wages and the right to collective bargaining.

She said the Teamsters have not been consulted about the Uber legislation.

Uber on the other hand, has been fairly involved.

“We have a sense of what legislative approach works,” said Mitchel Matthews, Uber’s senior operations manager for the Pacific Northwest. “So Sen. MacKinnon and Sen. Costello’s office would approach us with questions that may have come up during the committee for clarification and, so that’s how we’ve consulted with the senators.”

Matthews sounded optimistic about returning to the state.

“In 2016, we had over 20,000 Alaskans with the Uber app on their phone,” he said. “We do want to serve the entire state of Alaska and we’re excited to come back.”

The Senate bill will likely make it to the floor. Wool’s bill had its first hearing Feb. 23.

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