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By Chris Opfer
Uber and Lyft have each enlisted one-half of what was once a high-profile Washington lobbying duo to help get their voices heard in Congress.
Heather Podesta, the founder of Invariant, is lobbying for Uber on labor, transportation, and other issues. Tony Podesta—Heather’s former husband—is the chairman of Podesta Group, a government relations firm broaching similar subjects on Capitol Hill for Lyft.
The Podestas aren’t the only lobbyists working for the ride-sharing companies, but their involvement is a sign that Uber and Lyft are serious about having a say in any potential legislation affecting the sharing economy. The fiercely competitive businesses have largely common interests in Washington.
That includes ongoing discussions about how to classify drivers and other “gig” workers, who are largely treated as independent contractors. Uber and Lyft are fighting a variety of court battles over the contractor designation, which means drivers aren’t covered by minimum wage and overtime laws, arguably don’t have the right to unionize, and generally aren’t entitled to workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance benefits.
“We need to continue to push the conversation about drivers’ earnings to make sure they are making a living wage,” James Conigliaro, a union advocate who runs an Uber-sponsored guild for drivers, told Bloomberg BNA. “We have to start experimenting with how we make these jobs better for the workers.”
Uber and Lyft declined to comment for this story. Heather Podesta and Tony Podesta didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comments.
Heather Podesta is working to “introduce member offices to the presence and operation of Uber in districts and states,” according to a lobbying disclosure. Podesta Group said it’s talking to lawmakers about “independent contractor policies.”
Heather and Tony Podesta divorced in 2014, ending an 11-year marriage during which they ran separate high-powered lobbying shops. The couple contributed more than $300,000 to political campaigns during the 2014 election cycle.
John Podesta, Tony’s brother, ran Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign after working in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations.
Uber paid Invariant $60,000 for its services in the first half of 2017, according to lobbying disclosures, and Lyft shelled out $80,000 to Podesta Group during the same time. The companies have also identified portable benefits for workers as an area of interest.
They’ve hired other lobbyists to work on tax and transportation issues. The companies don’t have to pay Social Security and Medicaid taxes for independent contractors.
Portable benefits are the low-hanging fruit in terms of potential policies to support ride-share drivers and other gig workers. A wide variety of stakeholders have expressed support for some sort of model that would allow employers to pay into a benefits pool on a flexible, pro rata basis and give workers the ability to take those benefits with them when they change jobs.
“There’s a push both from the workers and the company side to offer some form of benefits,” Conigliaro said. “Whether a compromise comes out in the form of legislation—can’t be sure.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) earlier this year introduced a measure that would create a $20 million Labor Department grant program for states, local governments, and nonprofits to tinker with portable benefits for gig workers. Although that legislation shows no signs of moving in the GOP-controlled Congress, states including Washington, New York, and New Jersey are also considering portable programs.
The biggest players in the sharing economy have also said they’re interested in offering some benefits to workers, but they’re concerned the moves would mean they have to reclassify the workers as employees for liability purposes. Several have lobbied for narrow limits on that liability as part of any portable benefits legislation.
Uber has also taken some steps recently to play nice with its drivers. That includes a pilot program in which it partners with insurance companies in eight states to offer workers’ compensation benefits to drivers injured on the job and a new “180 Days of Change” initiative in which the company has pledged to enhance services for drivers.
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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