Should high-risk contract workers be entitled to workers comp?
A recent attack on an Uber driver has brought the issue of how the shared economy addresses workers comp. Omar, a 32-year-old driver for the app-based transportation network, was working a late-night shift in Los Angeles when two riders refused to leave his car and—after an argument—one of the passengers bludgeoned him with an object that left his jaw broken in two places and kept him in the hospital for over a week.
Omar is just one of a whole slew of recent cases revealing old dangers reaching the new job. Drivers for Uber have been choked, assaulted and car jacked, and stabbed in the face to name a few crimes that have happened in over several US cities like Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. What is unique about these cases from a workers comp perspective is that the injured workers cannot turn to the company for monetary compensation.
As independent contractors, like almost all workers in the sharing economy, Omar and other Uber drivers aren’t entitled to workers comp, which is designed to pay for work-related injuries and lost wages. Independent contractors, unlike employees, are free to set their own hours, clients, and have a lot of control over many other aspects of their work; however, in exchange for this freedom they pay the price of being on their own when they get hurt on the job and do not have the security that workers comp provides.
Still, Omar believes that Uber should pay for his injuries and provide him with workers comp. Most American cabbies are independent contractors as well, but they still receive workers comp in several major jurisdictions like Washington, Colorado, and New York states as well as the cities of San Francisco and Chicago. Though car-service apps like Uber may rid some cabbie risks, the same old dangers of being a taxi driver remain (a career where federal statistics say they’re 21 to 33 times as likely to be killed as other workers)–which can be even more unsettling when they find out they receive no aid like workers comp after injury.
There are legitimate concerns from some companies about whether providing workers comp to contractors could make them appear as employees, which would support lawsuits that claim they are misclassified as contractors. It’s not all bad, though: workers comp could even protect companies when a worker is injured—when the company agrees to cover on the job injuries the worker gives up the right to sue the company and the damages they collect are capped. Right now, Uber could be at risk if Omar or his attorney would be able to show that the company had been negligent by assigning him a known violent passenger, which he could then sue for an unlimited amount.
Experts think that this situation shows that an increasing number of workers will need to get their benefits outside of their jobs, and that work and benefits like workers comp will eventually decouple just like pensions did a generation ago. While there still is a feeling among contractors that they trust the company they work for, the company ultimately may feel it has a moral obligation but not a legal one for workers comp.