Two former Uber drivers are eligible for unemployment benefits after the state labor department determined they were employees, not independent contractors as the company says, an advocacy group announced Thursday.
"This is a historic victory," New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai said at a news conference in front of state Department of Labor offices in Manhattan.
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The alliance filed a lawsuit over the summer on behalf of Levon Aleksanian and Jakir Hossain after they complained their claims for unemployment were not being reviewed. Independent contractors cannot collect benefits.
Uber, which is based in San Francisco, is appealing the labor department's determination. It said that drivers, as employees, would lose the personal flexibility they now enjoy.
"Nearly 90 percent of drivers say the main reason they use Uber is because they love being their own boss," it said. "Drivers use Uber on their own terms; they control their use of the app along with where and when they drive. As employees ... they would have set shifts, earn a fixed hourly wage and be unable to use other ridesharing apps."
The alliance said it was calling on the labor department to audit Uber so all drivers could be deemed employees, qualifying them for unemployment benefits.
In a statement, the agency said it "continues to independently examine the wider issue of whether to classify drivers for rideshare services like Uber as employees or independent contractors."
"Unemployment determinations are made on a case-by-case basis and, depending on the facts, decisions have been made supporting both drivers as employees and drivers as independent contractors," it said.
Hossain, who was also determined to be an employee of the ride-hailing company Lyft, began receiving benefits last week.
Aleksanian and a third driver, Jeffrey Shepherd, who was not part of the lawsuit but is seeking the alliance's help, attended the news conference.
Shepherd, who worked for Uber for about a year, said sometimes his paycheck was as little as 50 cents after working an entire week because Uber took car payments out of his paycheck.
"I had to depend on my 75-year-old father to support me," he said.
Alliance staff member Zubin Soleimany said the alliance is "looking forward to seeing this not being addressed as a one-off, case-by-case basis that puts the burden on the driver to fight and litigate through a hearing every time they need these benefits."