Seattle Asking Uber Nicely for Wage Data, for Now

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By Jon Steingart

Seattle lawmakers asked ride-hail and taxi companies to voluntarily share data that could help assess driver earnings and work hours.

The City Council wants the information by May 31, it said in a nonbinding resolution, in an effort to assess whether drivers can live on their earnings. If the information isn’t delivered, lawmakers said they could mandate data-sharing and might establish a minimum per-trip base fare of $2.40 versus the current $1.35. Local taxis have a $2.60-per-trip minimum.

“We have been hearing from drivers year after year—those drivers are struggling to put the bread and the meat on the table,” Takele Gobena, a union representative with Teamsters Local 117 and former Uber driver, told Bloomberg Law. The local has been trying to organize drivers under an ordinance the council passed in 2015, but the process is paused because the law is tied up in litigation. The drivers remain unrepresented, but a decision could be imminent.

The local disputed a September 2017 blog post in which Uber said the median driver in Seattle makes between $19 and $21 per hour before expenses. Drivers don’t see much variation in their hourly pay no matter how many hours they work each week, wrote Brooke Steger, who was the company’s general manager for the Pacific Northwest at the time.

The City Council wants Uber to back up those claims. Its resolution, adopted April 9, calls for gig economy transportation companies, traditional taxi companies, and other types of for-hire vehicle companies to voluntarily provide data about driver earnings, fares, and hours worked. The legislation refers to gig economy ride-hailing companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. as transportation network companies.

Some drivers testified before the council that they make less than the Seattle minimum wage. That is $11.50  to $15.45 an hour, depending on the size of the employer and whether health benefits are provided.

“We’re trying to build an industry that is fair to all, and by that I mean drivers, TNC companies, consumers, and the industry participants, and be as transparent as possible,” council President Bruce Harrell said during an April 3 meeting of the council’s Governance, Equity, and Technology Committee. Harrell, who chairs the committee and sponsored the measure, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment April 11.

If the nonbinding resolution doesn’t do the trick, the council said it will explore legislation that mandates data-sharing, by both drivers and companies.

Bumping Rates Wrong Turn, Uber Says

Uber blasted the rate plan, saying it would make transportation costlier.

“The council ignored the testimony of dozens of drivers and riders and more than 20,000 people who signed a petition to keep rideshare affordable,” Alejandro Chouza, general manager for Uber Pacific Northwest, said in an emailed statement. The plan would nearly double the per-mile rate and make Seattle a more expensive place to live, Chouza said.

“There are no other major U.S. cities that currently have fare floors like Seattle is considering,” Nathan Hambley, an Uber spokesperson in Seattle, added in an emailed statement.

Seattle and other jurisdictions have sometimes struggled to figure out how to integrate gig economy ride-hailing companies into a transportation framework where taxis have long been the major player. The problem with Seattle’s plan is that it will knock ride-hailing down rather than lift taxicab businesses up, Michael Wolfe, an Uber driver and a leader of the company-backed driver trade association Drive Forward Seattle, told Bloomberg Law.

“City Council would be better served to look at deregulating or reregulating taxis in a form that makes it competitive with rideshare as opposed to regulating ride-share in a form that makes it look like taxis,” Wolfe said. “We hope that the companies will be able to find a way to share data with the city so the city can make a data-driven, fact-based decision,” Wolfe said.

Unionization and Trade Secrets

The resolution paves the way for Seattle lawmakers to carry out their goals when they enacted an ordinance that lets ride-hail drivers join unions, Wolfe said. Local 117 also backed that ordinance.

One of the points of contention for Uber, Lyft, and airport ground transportation provider Eastside for Hire Inc. is that disclosing drivers’ names and contact information for use in organizing drives would expose information their competitors could use to gain advantage. The companies consider driver information a trade secret.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments on the ordinance Feb. 5 and could rule at any moment.

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