Uber drivers are split over a bill moving through the state Legislature, with some drivers saying it will allow the ride-booking company to change their contracts on a whim and pay them below the minimum wage and others saying will give them the freedom to work when they want.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, classifies drivers for Uber, Lyft and similar businesses not as employees but as “independent contractors.” This is a sticking point for many drivers, who say it drops all liability on their heads and subjects them to surprise changes in the rates they’re allowed to charge.
“That’s how they get away with everything,” said Joe Chavez, who’s driven for Uber since July.
But other drivers say the classification gives them the freedom to work when and where they want. That likely appeals to teachers seeking summer work or military spouses who need to make money after moving, said Taylor Patterson, a spokeswoman for Uber, which supports the bill.
“We know that many, many, many drivers appreciate that opportunity, welcome it and prefer the flexibility that comes with that,” Patterson said.
Uber, which allows pedestrians around the world to hail a ride through a free smartphone app, was founded in 2009 and now is valued at more than $60 billion. Its drivers, who find passengers through the phone app, use their own cars. In New Mexico, they operate in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces.
Youngblood’s bill passed the House on Monday on a bipartisan vote of 58-8 and will now go to the Senate. The bill has reignited a debate in New Mexico that’s been raging nationally. Drivers in Florida, California and other states have sued the company, demanding employee status, tips, and reimbursement for expenses such as gas and maintenance.
And many states struggle to regulate Uber. In New Mexico, the company currently operates without any legal authority because of a lawsuit passing through the the state’s Supreme Court. The state’s cab companies, including Capital Cab in Santa Fe, filed the lawsuit to stall a set of rules the Public Regulation Commission was developing to allow Uber to operate in state. The litigation is pending.
But officials say Youngblood’s bill would allow the state to regulate companies like Uber. It would require the businesses or their drivers to keep insurance coverage of up to $1 million for death, bodily injury or property damage, among other insurance requirements. It would also require them to list their fares on their websites and conduct background checks of their drivers.
“Without HB 168,” Public Regulation Commission spokesman Carlos Padilla said, referring to Youngblood’s legislation, “we would continue to await action — if any — from the Supreme Court.”
Youngblood did not return phone calls Wednesday.
Chavez, also a former legislator, hopes the Senate recognizes that he and other drivers are employees, he said, not contractors.