Three years ago, Saori Okawa began driving for Uber to put herself through community college in San Francisco. As a recently divorced Japanese immigrant, she wanted to build a new life for herself as a social worker.
But Okawa, then 36, spoke little English and had no relevant work experience. The gig economy, with its flexibility and low barriers to entry, provided a navigable path to her professional goals.
When she graduated, that part-time hustle became a full-time engagement. Before the city went into lockdown in March, she was working 12-hour shifts six days a week, making an average of $11.52 per hour — $4 less than the city’s minimum wage. She was barely making enough to cover the costs of gas and the car rental, as well as her own rent and loans. She developed back pain and struggled to focus on applications for social work programs.
The precariousness of the gig fueled Okawa and her opposition against Proposition 22, a state ballot initiative that would preclude transportation and delivery app workers from receiving full employment status — and protected benefits such as overtime pay, disability coverage and a local minimum wage.
The proposal was introduced last October and will be voted on in the Nov. 3 election.
“A lot of immigrant drivers just do whatever the company wants because we feel like we can’t do anything about it,” Okawa told NBC Asian America. “I don’t want anyone else to go through the same thing I went through.”
The measure would disportionately affect nonwhite Californians like Okawa, who account for nearly 80 percent of San Francisco’s ride-share and delivery workforce, according to a state-commissioned study from May. Of nearly 650 people surveyed in the city, more than half are immigrants and one-third are Asian. Statewide, about 1 in 10 Asian American and Pacific Islanders work for on-demand app services.
Gig economy giants such as Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash have spent more than $185 million fighting against driver employment, making Proposition 22 the most expensive ballot fight in the state’s history. The effort would, in essence, allow these companies to sidestep a law passed last year that made many independent contractors employees. Should it pass, any amendment would require a seven-eighths majority vote in the state Legislature.
In place of the fixed rights attached to employment status, Proposition 22 offers an alternative set of benefits, such as health insurance subsidies to drivers who clock at least 15 hours a week, anti-discrimination and sexual harassment protections, and a guaranteed hourly pay equal to 120 percent of the minimum wage. But given that drivers are only compensated when they’re fulfilling a ride request, not when they’re waiting for one, the actual average pay for total time spent in the car is only $5.64 per hour, according to an analysis from the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
“Prop. 22 creates a substandard set of rules regarding the working conditions of primarily immigrants,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California-Hastings who has studied the rise of the gig economy. “It takes away any kind of upward mobility that this industry has long provided.”
For working-class Asian immigrants, Dubal said, the taxi industry once provided a means to accumulate wealth and build a middle-class life. With no access to unemployment insurance or sick leave, especially during a pandemic, she continued, gig drivers “have no ability to use business acumen to build wealth. It’s worse than working at McDonald’s or Burger King where you actually have access to basic benefits.”
Okawa said she doesn’t believe Uber would provide the benefits it has pledged.
At the height of the pandemic, Okawa said the company didn’t provide protective gear, disinfecting wipes or a partition shield between the front and back seats. Her calls to the driver support team went unanswered. When stores sold out of masks, she had to reuse the same one for a week. It wasn’t until two months later that she received an email from Uber offering face coverings and safety supplies. By that time, she’d already quit out of fear for her health and started driving for Instacart.
“Over all the years I worked with them, I didn’t feel the care,” she said. “All these promises they’re making now — I just don’t think it’s true."
A spokesperson for Uber said that, in March and April, mask distributors were prioritizing shipments to hospitals and had little to spare for rideshare platforms. Since then, the company says it has delivered more than 10 million free masks, wipes and sanitizers to drivers in North America.
Changes to the gig economy could affect a large segment of the Asian American community. But unlike Proposition 16, California’s contentious affirmative action measure, Proposition 22 hasn’t generated as much interest from Asian-led organizations. Only a handful of labor and business groups publicly endorsed or opposed the bill.
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance’s San Diego and Sacramento chapters, which represent contractors like Okawa, were among the few groups that campaigned against the initiative.
Johanna Puno Hester, the group’s former president, said AAPI coalitions haven’t been as vocal on Proposition 22 in part because gig workers lack representation and visibility.
“There aren’t many groups that can speak on their behalf to advocate for benefits that union workers have fought for in a contract,” she said, noting that contractors "need to be plugged in with labor groups that have connections to unions so they can know what their rights are.”
Proponents of the proposition, on the other hand, say it would save thousands of service sector jobs at a time when millions of Californians are struggling to pay bills.
“Third-party delivery services have been vital in keeping restaurants open, enabling them to keep in contact with customers without having to bring on a full-time delivery person,” said Pat Fong Kushida, the president of the California Asian Chamber of Commerce, which backs Proposition 22.
If platforms like DoorDash and Uber Eats were forced to reclassify workers as employees, she said, they would have to hike up delivery costs, putting more burden on Asian restaurant owners already reeling from the pandemic. A digital economy, she added, calls for a more flexible set of rules to protect workers' ability to choose “when, where, how long and who they work for."
But Proposition 22 could also create a roadmap for employers nationwide, in industries from hospitality to logistics, to propose similar legislation and turn thousands more essential workers into contractors, Dubal said.
“People think [Proposition 22] affects just a subset of the California workforce,” she said. “But it has the potential to set standards and grow such that other sectors of the service economy can abide by lower standards to exist.”