Lincoln-based startup Liberty has announced that it has partnered with Panhandle Trails in rural western Nebraska for a ride-hailing app similar to Uber or Lyft to supplement public transportation options. This could be a positive development for injured workers in rural areas, as long as Liberty protects the rights of its potential drivers.
It is fairly well known that disability rates are higher in the rural United States than in urban areas. This is often attributed to physical nature of rural jobs and the older rural population. However, transportation costs are another factor in these higher rates of disability. The cost of transportation from a relatively isolated rural area can be too high to justify taking a job. This concern is frequently an issue in workers’ compensation litigation in Nebraska. If Liberty can make it easier for injured rural residents to find employment, I wish for its success.
But the problem with ride-hailing apps is that companies want to deem their drivers to be independent contractors rather than employees. Driving jobs are relatively dangerous, and the costs of those work injuries will be shifted onto taxpayers and the drivers rather than workers’ compensation. However, innovation need not mean that workers go without the protections of workers’ compensation. Debbie Berkowitz with the National Employment Law Project points to the example of the Black Car Fund where Uber drivers in New York have created a workers’ compensation plan.
Liberty states that they want to comply with their legal obligations, which is encouraging. But when Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, calls Uber drivers the “other dude in the car” and wants to have driverless cars so he can get rid of Uber drivers altogether, workers and their lawyers have good reason to be skeptical of the sharing economy. That’s part of the reason that advocates for employees are fighting legislative efforts to broadly exempt sharing-economy employees from workers’ compensation and fair-employment laws. Other advantages of having drivers classified as employees means that states will not miss out on tax revenue. Holding the status of an independent contractor also increases paperwork and the risks of not complying with tax laws for a driver.
Aside from the issues related to workplace law, I would hope that expanding ride-hailing apps to rural America won’t be used as an excuse to stop funding rural public transportation. But overall, ride-hailing will be a net positive for rural areas, as long as it is done in a way that protects the rights of drivers.