Over the past few months, New York has largely moved away from COVID-19 restrictions in an effort to get back to “normal,” and now, after the wave of omicron has come and gone, the city is now back on track to recovery. . But our work to fix our economy is unfinished: unemployment in the city is still nearly double the national average; the windows are vacant; and hundreds of thousands of city residents are struggling to make ends meet without access to financial assistance or benefits that can protect them and their families.
One of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic are our for-hire drivers, as vehicle travel in New York is still down 28% since the pandemic began. Unlike other self-employed drivers here have free access to workers compensation insurance and health related benefits such as telemedicine coverage, vision coverage, dental insurance, mental health, as well as discounts on prescriptions, emergency care and diagnostic imaging.
The Legislature is now considering an expansion of these additional health-related programs through the Black Car Fund. It is imperative that our legislators recognize how much of a game-changer this assistance has been for New York City’s for-hire drivers.
For over 20 years, drivers have received benefits paid for by passengers through a surcharge and provided by the Black Car Fund through its Driver Benefits Program. This program was created by New York State as a safety net for workers in the industry, which now total more than 100,000 Uber, Lyft and traditional black car drivers. The director of the nonpartisan think tank Aspen Institute calls it “a one-of-a-kind innovative model.”
The pandemic has highlighted the effectiveness of the initiatives and resources made possible by the fund. Drivers were able to stay healthy and stay afloat despite working on the front lines and suffering from an economic crisis. The Black Car Fund and the Independent Drivers Guild have teamed up to provide around 20,000 masks and 4,000 test kits, along with several thousand bottles of hand sanitizer and gloves.
And even though ridership weathered the worst of COVID, the resilient model created by the Black Car Fund not only continued to deliver benefits to drivers, it also allowed the Fund to expand its services, at no cost to the driver. The Fund also pays drivers to attend health and wellness seminars and safety training to meet the highest professional standards, and partners with the Independent Drivers Guild to offer a very popular mental wellness program that includes free access to counseling and other related services. All of this has played a vital role with IDG’s multilingual caseworkers helping thousands of drivers through the crisis, including connecting people to support groups and essential resources including food, help with requesting assistance, loans and loan forgiveness and requesting bill deferrals.
The successful model provided by the Black Car Fund is now being considered by other states as an approach that could help the rapidly growing industry of gig workers who lack access to traditional benefits. In other words, New York has been leading the way in addressing a key challenge of today’s economy on behalf of the self-employed for decades.
New York’s recovery from COVID-19 presents the state with an opportunity to shape the future of our economy and how workers are protected. The pandemic has laid bare the inequalities that so many New Yorkers face on a daily basis, and we must take action to ensure that New York remains a city where not everyone can just get by, but where they can live a full and healthy life without fear. that an economic downturn, injury or other unexpected twists of fate will lead to financial ruin.
By continuing and strengthening and perhaps expanding the benefit surtax model proposed by the Black Car Fund, New York can continue to play a leadership role in workers’ rights while ensuring that workers freelancers can stay afloat when the next unexpected wave crashes.
Goldstein is the executive director of the Black Car Fund and Sexton is the executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild