It was just before sunrise, and John was cruising down a near-empty Dallas highway when a speeding car rear-ended him at over 65 miles per hour. His body lunged forward, but in the moment, he didn’t think he was seriously hurt; with his adrenaline pumping, John just felt a bit “shaken up.” A veteran Uber driver, he pulled over to the shoulder, exchanged information with the other driver — who, it later emerged, lacked active insurance — and reassured his passenger they’d be at their destination soon. He even drove a few more rides that day. But John couldn’t rid himself of a nagging headache and lingering pain in his back and neck that grew more intense each hour.
When he woke up the next morning, he sensed there was something seriously wrong. Thus began the endless saga of doctor visits and MRIs that culminated in a major back surgery to repair nerve damage. John is now only able to drive a fraction of the 70-80 hours a week he used to. His neck and back begin to ache after just a few hours on the road.
“I like driving, and still have to provide,” said the father of two children, who still drives for Uber and asked that his real name be withheld over fear of reprisals. Since the accident, he says he’s cut the family grocery budget by at least a fifth to stretch his smaller paycheck as far as possible.
What happened to John is common — driving a car for a living is a risky proposition. Though the federal government doesn’t break out data related to Uber, taxi drivers, who perform very similar work, are more likely to be killed on the job than police officers, and they are are about as likely to miss work due to an injury as workers in other dangerous industries like logging or mining
But unlike many taxi drivers, Uber drivers are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. That means when drivers like John are hurt on the job, and unable to go back to work full-time, they won’t receive a portion of their salary during recovery—and they often have to rely on their own health insurance to pay medical bills.
“I didn’t even think about getting workers’ compensation,” John said. “Uber wasn’t paying for anything.” John knew what many drivers know: that Uber fights tooth and nail in courts and in front of labor boards from New York to California to classify its drivers as independent contractors, in part to avoid having to pay for workers’ compensation payouts to its more than 300,000 drivers, a workforce comparable to major employers like Home Depot and Target.
Last month, for the first time since it appeared on the scene in 2009, Uber moved to acknowledge and address the problem. The company has partnered with insurance giants OneBeacon and Aon to pilot a new voluntary program that would provide a way for drivers like John to recoup their wages and cover medical expenses if they are injured on the job. Uber touted the insurance as a “low-cost option” for its drivers “to protect themselves and their families against rare and unforeseen accidents that prevent them from working.” The plan will be available in eight states, and it will be up to drivers to decide if they want to set aside 3.75 cents per-mile to buy the policy. Uber has also raised its rates in those states to offset the cost of buying the policy—though Uber rates tend to fluctuate, and there’s no guarantee that the company will not cut the the price in the future.
The Intercept obtained a copy of an 18-page explanation of coverage provided to drivers in Illinois. The insurance scheme was covered in national publications like Bloomberg, as well as local outlets where the plan rolled out, and described as Uber offering “workers’ compensation” benefits. But the first page of the document exclaims in all capital letters: “THIS INSURANCE IS NOT WORKERS’ COMPENSATION INSURANCE.”
There are two major differences between Uber’s plan and traditional workers’ compensation insurance: the plan is optional, and Uber is asking drivers to pay for it themselves. By law, workers’ compensation insurance for traditional employees is mandatory, and must be paid for by the employer itself. It’s hard to be sure how much money Uber saves by asking drivers to foot the bill—but based on proprietary risk-rates provided to The Intercept to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, it could be thousands of dollars per year per driver.