Don Creery signed up for health care on the Affordable Care Act as soon as it went live. Creery drives for Uber full-time in Seattle, earning $700 a week for 50 to 55 hours of work. With $900 premiums for private healthcare, he said an Obamacare repeal would leave him uninsured.
Fellow Seattle-based Uber driver Musse Bhata also uses Obamacare, and though he doesn’t think Republicans will ultimately repeal the bill, he admits he’s worried.
“If Obamacare is gone, it’s gonna be impossible for me, and I’m just myself,” Bhata told Jalopnik. “For independent drivers, some of them have five, eight kids; I don’t know what they’re gonna do.”
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Among those vulnerable to the repeal of the controversial 2010 law are drivers for Uber, Lyft and other app-based ride-hailing companies. In typical Silicon Valley “gig economy” startup fashion, all those drivers work as private contractors and their companies do not provide health care or other benefits, no matter how many hours they put in.
There’s at least 327,000 Uber drivers and 100,000 Lyft drivers—a lot of people that could need ACA’s service. If a driver doesn’t qualify for Medicare, or doesn’t have a spouse with employer insurance, the repeal could mean no coverage at all.
Though Senate Republicans failed to pass an “repeal and replace” bill to the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”, as it’s derisively known, although the former president himself later embraced the term) last week, the healthcare legislation is still in jeopardy.
This afternoon, Senate GOP will vote again on whether to bring a scaled-down ACA repeal and replace measure up for consideration, hoping to finally secure enough Republican votes to move forward.
But even if the bill fails to get through the Senate, President Donald Trump vowed to “let Obamacare fail,” meaning using the executive branch to fail to properly administer the policy.
Republicans also suggested simply repealing the law without immediately issuing a replacement, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would leave 32 million people without insurance, including those drivers.
“I’m already struggling. If I don’t have healthcare and something happens, it’s just going to be more burden to the government,” Bhata said.
(Representatives from Uber and Lyft did not reply to multiple requests for a comment on this story.)
Obamacare And The Gig Economy
Though Obama signed the ACA into law three months before Uber first launched in San Francisco, framers of the bill knew part-time and freelance workers would be key beneficiaries of the policy. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said back in 2012 that Obamacare allows more people to quit full-time jobs to become musicians or “whatever.”
Not surprisingly, her remarks came with pushback, but Pelosi did underline the way Obamacare keeps Americans from “job lock,” or grudgingly staying in jobs they don’t want to but need for benefits. With access to public healthcare, Americans could freely retire, start a business or work as freelancers without worry, she argued.
“(Freeing up workers) is one of the major motivations for health care reform, if not the biggest,” said Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who helped design the Affordable Care Act told BuzzFeed back in 2014.
Since then, ground transportation contractors (aka Uber and Lyft drivers) increased 44 percent more than their payroll counterparts and the gig economy may double in the next few years.
Uber and Lyft seem to sense the policy’s importance to their companies. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reportedly called the policy “huge” for his company, and Lyft partnered with the Obama administration to encourage its drivers to sign up for healthcare in last year.
“App based drivers are a particularly vulnerable group of workers because of the way their work is structured: they don’t have access to the safety net that protects other workers and they also don’t have access to the benefits other workers have in traditional employment companies,” said Dawn Gearhear, Policy Coordinator at Teamsters 117 that houses the App-Based Drivers Association.
How Ride-Hailing Companies Help (Or Don’t)
When Harry Campbell contemplated switching out of his salaried job to drive Uber full-time, healthcare almost held him back.
Known as The Rideshare Guy through his popular blog, Campbell and his partner considered having a baby one day, and whether they’d be able to afford the precipitous hospital fees.
But he also admitted the healthcare burden hasn’t been as big on him since he can afford the high deductibles. In an interview with Jalopnik, Campbell said, “it’s really only around 10 percent or so that go and buy it on a state exchange,” he said, pulling that number from a survey he administered through his site that got 1,150 responses.
Uber, too, likes to claim a whopping 73 percent of its drivers would prefer to be their “own boss” over a salaried job and benefits, according to a 2015 survey that only surveyed 601 drivers. At the time, Newsweek reported responses accounted for just 0.38 percent of the 160,000 total active drivers, and even if all the drivers asked to take the survey—5,464—agreed, that’s just 3.4 percent of Uber’s U.S. driver-partners. Not exactly representative.
To help drivers get covered, Uber and Lyft set up partnerships with Stride Health, an online insurance broker that helps workers find coverage. The Stride Health app can even track all the mileage an Uber drive racks up, using it to generate a tax deduction summary.
But Takele Gobena, who was insured under Obamacare when he drove for Uber but now receives benefits from his employer, told Jalopnik Uber “didn’t help with anything,” that the company did not provide him with resources to sign up for healthcare. Bhata and Creery also mentioned signing up for the ACA independent of Uber or Lyft.
A number of drivers also mentioned the health risks that drivers working full-time have to deal with. Many strive to drive as much as possible, which often means snacking on chips or pop as they fill up on gas, or grabbing fast food. The drivers also mentioned dizziness and difficulty standing after sitting in a car for 16 hours, not to mention the increased risk of injury from car crashes.
“Especially with Obamacare hanging on the threads right now, there’s a huge fear of most of the people who are actually living on that,” Gobena said.
How Drivers Can Stay Covered
Some drivers are self-advocating to keep healthcare if Obamacare dies, but any success is unlikely to spread to the majority of drivers across the country.
For instance, the Independent Drivers Guild, an NYC-based advocacy group, launched a petition urging city council to move forward on a bill requiring city-sponsored programs ensuring health benefits for for-hire drivers.
“Thousands of drivers, at least half of whom are the breadwinner of their family, could either lose health insurance or have to be so financially crippled they’d be forced to work even more than the 12+ hours per day they commonly work now (should Obamacare be repealed),” Ryan Price, IDG’s executive director, said in a statement to Jalopnik.
Even so, Uber is doing everything to ensure drivers can’t unionize. Though Seattle was the first city to allow Uber drivers to collectively bargain for benefits, the ride-hailing behemoth has been trying to overturn the decision for the last two years and pushed anti-union propaganda in its in-app podcast, Uber Seattle Partner Podcast.
Last year, the company settled two cases with drivers in California and Massachusetts allowing them to form “drivers associations,” which looks like a union but essentially exists to prevent real bargaining from occurring.
And don’t think Lyft is any better; the company opposed the Seattle unionization effort alongside its competitor.
So why are Uber and Lyft are so opposed to making drivers employees? Simple: it would cost a lot to do that. Uber in particular is losing money faster than any tech company ever, mostly from the fees it already pays out to drivers. Adding benefits and higher wages to the big chunk of its earnings drivers already get would stunt the company’s growth.
Lyft is in a slightly better position, but both companies are aggressively pursuing self-driving technologies as a way stop paying for drivers altogether.
Without the collective bargaining ability, drivers face the insurmountable task of individually persuading the app or lawmakers to provide benefits.
“If you’re not making money to buy you’re own insurance, there’s a fear,” Gobena said. “A lot of drivers don’t know what they can do except continue living the way it is.”