When Uber drivers are hurt at work, who pays?

When Uber drivers are hurt at work, who pays?
By Carolyn Said
June 23, 2016 Updated: June 23, 2016 5:00pm

Photo: Liz Hafalia, The ChronicleKip Baldwin considers the $21,000 settlement from Uber's insurance company “ridiculously low” but feels that his back is against a wal.
Kip Baldwin was driving four Uber passengers near downtown San Francisco when his car was broadsided by another Uber driver who ran a stop sign. Three months later, lingering pain from neck injuries and a concussion leave him unable to work. Uber’s insurance company has offered him $21,000 for medical expenses, lost wages and “inconvenience.”

He considers that amount “ridiculously low” but feels that he may have to accept it because he needs the money.

“This was my main source of income,” said Baldwin, 51, a San Rafael resident whose receipts show he averaged about $800 a week (before expenses) working for rival ride service Lyft. He had switched to Uber shortly before the mid-March accident after renting a car through an Uber program. “I’m being forced into a position of settling for almost nothing because I don’t have the deep pockets to fight them and go to court.”

His situation highlights the precarious status of gig workers who lack workers’ compensation coverage, insurance that’s designed to help people who are injured on the job — but is generally only offered to employees. Uber and Lyft base their business models on independent contractors, and both have battled lawsuits seeking to reclassify drivers as employees.

Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle“I’m being forced into a position of settling for almost nothing because I don’t have the deep pockets to fight them and go to court, which would take a year or more,” said Kip Baldwin.
“Uber drivers deserve to be covered by the same labor protections for safety and workers’ compensation as are taxi drivers and others,” said Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, who just published a policy brief arguing that point.

Driving passengers for hire ranks as one of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, Berkowitz said, with both workplace violence and auto accidents contributing to a high fatality rate. Uber and Lyft have both said that their drivers are less likely to be robbed by passengers because they don’t carry cash and because passengers’ identities are known, but incidents of passengers attacking drivers can still occur.

Workers’ compensation policies cover some 129 million U.S. workers. People injured at work get money for medical bills and weekly stipends for lost wages, though usually less than their full salaries. Policies also offer compensation for permanent disabilities. For employers, the policies help avoid lawsuits over work accidents. Employers either purchase private insurance or participate in state funds; large companies may self-insure. While many taxi drivers are considered independent contractors, taxi companies generally pay for coverage.

Brian Hilliard, Baldwin’s attorney, said the $21,000 settlement from Uber’s insurer, James River, comprises $2,400 for lost wages (eight weeks at $300/week); $6,000 for his medical expenses (Baldwin’s own medical insurance covered much of this) and $12,600 for “inconvenience.” (There was no amount for the totaled car, because it was a leased vehicle that he returned.) He and Baldwin said that $350,000 would be a more reasonable amount considering lost wages for an indeterminate time, psychological trauma and continuing costs of medical treatments, counseling and physical therapy.

James River declined to comment. Uber pointed to a blog post by CEO Travis Kalanick about drivers’ autonomy. Most drivers “want to be their own boss” and value their independence and flexibility, the post said.

Photo: Eric Risberg, Associated PressFILE - In this Dec. 16, 2014, file photo a man leaves the headquarters of Uber in San Francisco. Uber picked up a hefty fare Wednesday, July 15, 2015, when a judge fined the taxi-alternative company $7.3 million for refusing to give California regulators information about its business practices, including accident details and how accessible vehicles are to disabled riders. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Hilliard said that James River plays hardball, including a requirement that all medical treatment be concluded before it will even discuss a settlement amount. Other insurers allow for payments while an accident victim is still recovering, he said. While insurer delays and lowball offers are not unusual, he said James River’s approach is particularly frustrating.

Harry Campbell, who writes the Rideshare Guy blog, said he’s accustomed to driver complaints about James River, which is the insurer for both Uber and Lyft. “A lot of drivers get into accidents and don’t realize that they aren’t covered for things like lost wages,” he said. In fact, Baldwin is unusual in being offered any lost-wage compensation, he said. Many Uber and Lyft drivers find that they get more money from insurers covering the other car in an accident. That’s not an option for Baldwin, since the other car was also an Uber vehicle.

Baldwin’s situation is complicated by the fact that he had been driving for Lyft, although his injuries occurred while working through Uber. That’s another area in which workers’ comp offers superior coverage. In most states, people with multiple employers who are injured on one job “can receive compensation that takes into consideration the wages they have lost in other jobs,” Berkowitz wrote in her brief.

Even if Uber drivers stay independent contractors, there’s precedent for getting them coverage. In New York state dispatchers of for-hire vehicles — black cars, Uber and Lyft — contribute a 2.44 percent surcharge on fares to a state-run fund.

“This has been eye-opening,” Baldwin said. “What are Uber and Lyft drivers supposed to do if they get injured while driving? My life has been turned upside down.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @csaid