California Forum

Shawn Hubler: Risky business behind the wheel of the new economy

Micah Setnik, a 45-year-old father of two from Marin County, arrived last week in Sacramento, one of scores of Uber and Lyft drivers dispatched to speak up for today’s “sharing economy.”

“Working for Lyft, living in Marin County,” he joked. “Makes me sound like I’m doing pretty good, huh?”

In fact, he said, until 16 months ago, he was on food stamps.

“I was a general contractor for 27 years, and then in 2009, the work stopped,” he said, folding a hot pink Lyft car mustache and tucking it under his backpack. By the time he discovered Lyft in a Facebook ad, he said, his life savings were history.

Around him, throngs of T-shirted drivers milled, chatting up each other, filling the Capitol hallways. Like Setnik, they had come to ask politicians not to mess with a source of income that was helping them make ends meet in an economy that, for many, has become less reliable by the day.

Most were strikingly middle-aged compared to the peppy young organizers who had bused them in Tuesday morning, and many were working one or two other jobs, part time.

Here was Ken Newman, a Type 2 diabetic from Sacramento who said his gig with Uber “has been a life-saver.” Here was rookie Lyft driver Kathleen Fazio, “a 60-year-old woman, out of work for a year and a half, with a mortgage, property taxes and a kid in college; this thing saved my frickin’ life, no kidding.”

Here, too – off to one side – was Beth Powder, a San Francisco activist and cabbie, whose industry has been decimated by Lyft and Uber.

Powder, too, talked about struggle.

“The only reason I can live in San Francisco is that I have a rent-controlled apartment,” she confided.

She shook her head as her ridesharing rivals explained that their companies shouldn’t be forced to insure drivers at the pricey levels required of taxis.

“I don’t think these guys understand the stakes here,” she said. “If I’m hit by someone in my cab, or if I hit someone, my company takes care of the damage.

“But if these people hit someone at the wrong time, they’re pretty much on their own. Do they know that? Do they understand that they could be liable, and their wages could end up being garnished into perpetuity?”

The debate over how best to regulate Web-based ride services like Lyft and Uber has been widely depicted as an effort to bring the law into line with a new and innovative dimension of the modern economy.

Once, it was dangerous to get into a car with a stranger; making it safe was one reason that cabs were expensive. Now, smartphone apps make it easy to connect with and vet someone who’s going your way, and willing to let you ride along for a small fee. They’ll even let you prepay, removing cash from the equation.

The innovation has made room for the commercialized sharing of virtually any possession – a car, spare room, boat, parking space, lawnmower. Need a bed for the night? Don’t call a hotel. Just use Airbnb to rent someone’s guest room. Need a lift? Why pay for a cab when you can summon a low-priced UberX or pink-mustachioed Lyft whose driver will send you off with a cheery fist bump?

But looked at from another angle, the regulations being proposed in California and elsewhere, and in many cases being resisted by Lyft and Uber, are also an effort to address some of the ways in which our brave new economy has become exponentially riskier than the old one.

Flooding the landscape with self-employed chauffeurs who share a little cut of every transaction is wildly lucrative for those at the top of the sharing economy model. Earlier this month, Uber was valued at a mind-numbing $18.2 billion, and Lyft has raised hundreds of millions in venture capital.

But for the many at the bottom, the benefits are considerably less clear-cut. In markets that are less cab-dependent than San Francisco, some ridesharing drivers have complained that, by the time they figure in gas, they’re lucky to clear the equivalent of the minimum wage. Meanwhile, the competition is eroding once-reliable sources of entry-level employment. In London, Paris and Madrid, cabbies have shut down streets with anti-Uber protests.

And while turning a personal car into a business may bring in extra cash, it also incurs liabilities that drivers aren’t always aware of. Most ordinary insurance won’t cover personal vehicles for commercial uses, for instance, and most states are still working out the insurance requirements for companies like Lyft and Uber.

Only in the past year has California begun mandating commercial policies for “transportation network companies,” as the state now calls them, and even so, the law has left gaps in which tragedies have happened.

One of the bills under consideration in the state Senate stemmed from an accident New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, in which an Uber driver struck and killed a child in a crosswalk, while he was arguably on the job but before his commercial coverage technically kicked in. Now there’s a potentially devastating lawsuit over who is liable.

This is why expanding insurance requirements in California is good public policy and better for the lower rungs of the sharing economy than the drivers might realize.

Assembly Bill 2293 would make commercial policies the insurer of first resort for drivers, as opposed to their personal insurance, and would require expanded commercial coverage from the time the app is turned on until a pickup is assigned, when currently mandated commercial policies become effective. Meanwhile, AB 612 would require Department of Justice background checks and drug testing for all ride-to-hire drivers.

At the Capitol last week, Setnik said he’s fine with tougher security requirements but against expanded insurance mandates, even though hostile cabbies in San Francisco routinely cut him off in traffic, trying, he suspects, to bait him into an accident.

His larger fear – “and this is coming from a Bay Area liberal,” he said – is that the state will regulate him out of an income. These days, he makes about $1,200 to $1,400 a week, working six 10-hour days. That’s without the 20 percent commission Lyft used to charge, but recently lifted after a cut in fares.

It’s not much, but it has let him buy a new car so he no longer has to borrow his girlfriend’s Prius. “Please vote responsibly,” Setnik said when it was his turn to address state lawmakers. “If it weren’t for this company, I’d be on welfare.”

Less clearly addressed – by him, and by the scores of other road warriors who rallied on behalf of their sharing economy employers – was whether the rewards as well as the risks in this new landscape are being sufficiently shared.