Tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers received at least $80 million in government assistance during the coronavirus pandemic — making them among the largest groups of beneficiaries of a little-known government grant and loan program established to help small businesses weather severe economic disruptions.
The drivers benefited from the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program of the U.S. Small Business Administration, money intended to help struggling businesses, entrepreneurs and other workers stay afloat during the pandemic. Policy experts said it was unusual for such a vast pool of workers under the umbrella of multibillion-dollar corporations to tap into that money. But gig workers qualified because they are classified as independent contractors under the law, a designation companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash fought last year to maintain.
When the pandemic hit U.S. soil roughly a year ago, tens of thousands of gig workers were left without employer support as work opportunities dried up and the risk of contracting the coronavirus kept many off the road. Ride-hailing trips dropped as much as 80% in major cities, according to data released in the companies’ earnings calls and quarterly reports.
A Washington Post analysis of SBA data showed “Uber” and “Lyft” were the two most common business names in both the EIDL loan program and the EIDL Advance program. Those programs offered grants of up to $10,000, as well as much larger loans, with little scrutiny, making them widely accessible to gig workers.
The more than 5,000 Uber and Lyft drivers who received the EIDL loans each collected an average of around $15,000, according to The Post’s analysis. Those who turned to the EIDL advance — a much larger pool totaling as many 23,000 rideshare drivers, including at least 18,000 who specifically work for Uber or Lyft — received around $1,100 on average, though the median figures for both programs skewed lower as more drivers collected amounts on the lower ends of the distribution.
The data, which was released by the SBA after The Post and 10 other news organizations filed a federal lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, shows how workers in the gig economy relied on a hodgepodge of government programs to stay afloat during a severe economic disruption. More broadly, it reflects how a new economic class of workers was left to rely on the social safety net at the same time Big Tech added billions in value and fought regulation that would require gig firms to contribute more to social programs.
Harry Campbell, founder of the popular blog The Rideshare Guy, said his site posted guides that proved popular during the pandemic on how to access the different types of government assistance.
“From the companies’ perspective, they really got the best of both worlds: paying drivers as independent contractors and the government covered all of their benefits,” he said.
In response to questions about Uber and Lyft drivers — and other gig workers — qualifying for SBA loans, spokeswoman Tiffani Shea Clements said the workers qualify as independent contractors and are encouraged to apply for government assistance, but the administration’s guidance does not provide specific instructions based on industry type.
Loans for ride-booking and gig workers identified by The Post accounted for a tiny fraction of nearly 10 million EIDL advances and loans provided by the SBA, Clements said.
Uber spokesman Matthew Wing pointed to efforts the company has made to support drivers. For example, he said, Uber agreed to provide up to 14 days of financial assistance for drivers and couriers diagnosed with an “active case” of COVID-19 or those told to quarantine because of preexisting conditions putting them at risk. Under that program, Uber had provided $29 million total in assistance to nearly 100,000 workers, Wing said.
Uber also distributed free protective equipment and helped connect workers with other opportunities to earn money, as well as providing information on government assistance programs, he added.
Lyft spokeswoman Julie Wood pointed to arguments that drivers prefer the independent contract model that enabled them to qualify for government assistance.
“The vast majority of people who drive for Lyft do so part-time to earn extra money and have other jobs — 96% of drivers work or are students in addition to driving — and, like so many Americans, they deserve relief from the government to help with the broad economic impacts of the pandemic,” she said.
But some gig workers said they struggled to access government relief because of the ambiguity of their status.
Johnathan Mouzon, 36, learned about the EIDL assistance last year but was uncertain whether he would qualify as a onetime Uber Eats courier and gig worker who ended up shuttling COVID patients to and from the hospital during the pandemic.
“I was like, ‘All of this for a thousand dollars, man?’ Come on,” he recalled. “We thought we had that in our pockets: We could take that money pay off some bills, this and that … There was nobody telling anybody anything … They didn’t have anything in the black-and-white writing talking about anything about the drivers.”
Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig companies poured more than $200 million into a ballot initiative last year that superseded California legislation that would have established certain gig workers as employees, granting them access to benefits such as health care, sick leave and unemployment insurance. Known as Prop 22, it codified gig workers’ status as independent contractors and left them without those employer-provided benefits, a massive blow to labor advocacy efforts at the height of the pandemic. The companies are now seeking to push the model to other states.
Policy experts and gig economy observers said tech companies benefited from their workforce’s access to programs the firms did not pay into, lessening the pressure to make workers employees at a time when they were engaged in a heated political battle over workers’ status.
In addition to EIDL, the workers were backstopped by what the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates will end up being $140 billion in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance passed in federal stimulus legislation, along with the Paycheck Protection Program established in last year’s federal coronavirus relief bill. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program provided partial replacement of lost income, in addition to qualifying recipients for the broader $600 weekly unemployment supplement through July 2020; which was followed this year by a boost of $300 weekly through September. The Paycheck Protection Program provided forgivable loans up to 2½ times workers’ monthly incomes.
When The Post broadened the search within EIDL data to include alternate spellings and drivers who used their personal names as well as their gig firm, it turned up almost 20,000 grants and loans with apparent ties to Uber and Uber Eats, and more than 8,000 with ties to Lyft.
Other gig companies, such as DoorDash (more than 3,500 entries), Airbnb (more than 3,000) and Instacart (more than 1,500), were also well represented in the EIDL data. Some gig workers sometimes listed multiple companies, such as a Falls Church, Va., man who described himself as an “Uber/DoorDash Driver.” In those cases, they were included in the count for each company they listed.
Campbell, the founder of TheRideshareGuy.com, said the EIDL program was “one of the simplest and quickest ways to get paid,” but the companies and government failed to properly publicize drivers’ eligibility.
He sought to help connect drivers with assistance as the Rideshare Guy account posted an explainer video to YouTube in April, specifying how to tap into the EIDL benefits. It had amassed around 200,000 views by this month and led to dozens of drivers seeking loans and grants, showing the scope of gig workers’ need.
Uber’s page explaining which government assistance programs drivers might be eligible for and updates from Lyft were not enough, gig worker advocates said.
“In that context it’s not surprising that whatever public-sector support is available, these people are trying to get access to even if it isn’t designed for them,” said Chris Benner, a University of California at Santa Cruz professor who focuses on technology and the future of work, including the gig economy. “In this case, nothing is designed for them; they just fall through the cracks.”
Drivers’ problems were compounded by early delays in getting EIDL loans out to recipients. By late April, almost two months into the program, the SBA had approved only 38,000 of the millions of loan applications it had received.
The SBA explains on its website that EIDL are available to businesses with 500 or fewer employees and most private nonprofits, along with faith-based organizations, sole proprietorships and independent contractors. “The EIDL program is designed to provide economic relief to businesses that are currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19,” it says. Recipients are eligible for loans amounting to six months of “working capital,” up to a maximum of $150,000, with repayments deferred for a year.
A search of the website’s EIDL materials, including a frequently asked questions section, did not turn up any guidance concerning gig workers for Uber or Lyft, ride-hailing drivers in general, or their eligibility for the program. An October 2020 SBA inspector general’s report contained mentions of Uber, Lyft and other gig companies, but only to highlight the risk of fraud by having so many applicants under “vague borrower names” such as “Uber.”
“The EIDL program is for emergency working capital needs for all eligible entities, including independent contractors such as Uber and Lyft drivers,” Clements, the SBA spokeswoman, said.
Aziz Bah, organizing director of the Independent Drivers Guild, a labor group representing more than 80,000 drivers in New York City, said his organization realized last spring that drivers were eligible for the EIDL program and sought to get the word out.
“Drivers were turning to any kind of assistance that exists out there,” he said. “We realized that drivers essentially qualified because traditionally they wouldn’t … This should be a wake-up call of the reason why drivers need a voice and drivers need to negotiate their own working conditions.”
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The Washington Post’s Nate Jones and Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.