Biden Makes a Deal With Uber and Lyft in the Name of Vaccines

Despite his unease with the ride-hail business model, the president needs help getting more Americans to vaccination sites to meet his July 4 deadline.

Joe Biden has been president for only four months, but he’s already been hailed as the country’s most pro-labor leader since Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He wants to make it easier for workers to unionize and would raise the national minimum wage to $15. He opposed Proposition 22, the California ballot measure that allowed gig platforms like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash to continue treating their workers as independent contractors. In March, he backed the (doomed) union drive in a Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse. “Unions put power in the hands of workers,” he said then. “They level the playing field.”

Tuesday, though, Biden frustrated some worker advocates when he announced a deal with the ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft to get more Americans to vaccination sites—despite his unease with their business model. The program, to start on May 24, will point users on the apps to nearby vaccination sites and will cover $15 rides in either direction. Lyft says that, based on previous rides to vaccination sites, it expects the amount to cover “most, if not all” of fares to and from the sites.

Biden, it turns out, has other priorities, and a self-imposed deadline: He wants Americans to feel safe attending normal(ish) Fourth of July barbecues. The White House has set a goal of getting 70 percent of US adults at least one Covid-19 shot by the summer holiday. At this point 59 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“The vaccine is the key to getting us all moving again, and we’re proud to do our part to move the country forward,” John Zimmer, the cofounder and president of Lyft, said in a statement. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi called the partnership a “proud moment for me, for Uber, and for our country.”

But labor activists said Tuesday the deal put the White House at odds with some of its leaders’ stated principles. “If this is something that this administration has OK’d, it does not bode well for what we will see in terms of enforcement actions,” says Veena Dubal, a professor of labor law at the UC Hastings College of the Law.

So far, the Democratic administration has signaled support, tepidly, for changing the rules on worker classification. Today, all states allow companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers and delivery people as independent contractors, who can sign in to work on the app any time but are not entitled to traditional benefits like health care insurance and workers’ compensation. Last week, labor secretary Marty Walsh told Reuters, “In a lot of cases, gig workers should be classified as employees.” He nominated David Weil, a former Obama appointee and Uber critic, to head the department’s Wage and Hour Division. The Labor Department last week also repealed a Trump administration rule that labor advocates had feared would be used to maintain gig workers’ independent contractor status. The department did not respond to a request for comment.

The CDC has pinpointed lack of transportation as a factor in preventing people, and especially vulnerable populations, from getting the vaccine. After listening sessions with local groups and agencies held earlier this year, the agency recommended governments work with community and faith-based organizations, Medicaid and Medicare programs, transportation companies, and ride-hail services to get more shots into arms. A number of cities, states, and transit agencies already offer free transportation programs to vaccination sites.

The ride-hail partnership likely won’t help everyone. Some local agencies say their biggest challenge is transporting older or homebound adults. In 2018, just 24 percent of Americans aged 50 and older said they had used a ride-hail service. Public health officials have also begun to stress the importance of reaching people in rural areas, where vaccine rates lag and where ride-hail service can be especially hard to come by.

But the deal gives the ride-hail companies another way to show they’re an irreplaceable part of the national infrastructure, in a moment where regulation could put their business models at risk.

For years, Uber and Lyft have tried to become one-stop shops for all Americans’ transportation—and for Uber, delivery—needs. Khosrowshahi has pinned Uber’s hopes on becoming the “Amazon for transportation.” To that end, both companies have extended hands—and wheels—to governments. Both have formed partnerships with local transit agencies, with Uber actually taking over the operation of some smaller systems and selling software to others in the US and Canada. Lyft’s bike-share arm operates the largest systems in the country, with contracts ensuring its continued (and in some cases, exclusive) relationship with cities. In November, the General Service Administration announced the companies had jointly won a five-year contract worth up to $810 million that allows federal employees to use Uber and Lyft when traveling. The feds said they had negotiated 2 to 4 percent discounts, beyond what the companies offered other large commercial customers.

Lyft has made other inroads in health care, with a division dedicated to programs that allow medical providers and insurance companies to pay for patients’ rides. The company is working with at least 35 state Medicaid programs or Medicaid-managed care organizations to give rides to those on the plans. On a call with investors last week, Zimmer, the Lyft president, said the company would continue to invest in its health care programs.

The goal is simple: Whoever you are, whatever you need—including now a shot—reach for our apps.

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