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Panel could air employee gripes, becoming the first of its kind in the United States.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - An Uber driver waits in the Portland International Airport for a customer to hail him via smartphone. The Portland City Council wants to give more clout in the workplace to some 10,000 Uber and Lyft drivers who work in the city.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the council endorsed creation of a new "oversight body" that would air complaints from drivers for the app-based ride services, which call themselves transportation network companies or TNCs, among other issues. The mayor and all four city commissioners had sponsored the resolution, which directs the Portland Bureau of Transportation to research ideas for the dispute-resolution panel.

The resolution also called for equalizing standards between the app-based ride services and traditional taxi companies, and for transparent use of data. Uber and Lyft have insisted that city regulators not disclose data about their operations, even including how many drivers they have.

It remains to be seen how much clout the panel will have. Portland is one of three cities, along with Seattle and New York City, exploring such bodies.

The city transportation bureau, which has overseen the deregulation of the taxi and ride-service industry the past three years, must bring its research back to the City Council for approval within six months. That gives lame-duck Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the transportation bureau, a chance to guide the process and vote on the measure before his term ends.

City Commissioner Nick Fish, the prime mover of the project, said Uber and Lyft drivers are considered "independent contractors," but noted that state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian has suggested they are actually employees.

"As long as they're in legal limbo, I think there should be a place to go where they can have justice," Fish said. "I'm persuaded that TNC drivers do not have a meaningful voice in the workplace."

As independent contractors, the drivers have broad latitude to work when and where they choose. Many Uber and Lyft drivers treasure the flexibility, as they fit in driving alongside other jobs or responsibilities. However, they also lack the right to be covered by minimum wage laws, don't qualify for workers compensation and unemployment insurance and lack the right to bargain collectively. Uber and Lyft drivers also pay the employee and employer payments for Social Security taxes.

In a 3.5-hour City Council hearing last Wednesday, several drivers testified that they prefer being independent contractors and feel they are treated well by the two big app-based ride services.

Several others, sporting "We want a voice" stickers and placards, said they feel powerless when Uber and Lyft impose new fees or reduce their compensation.

The Oregon AFL-CIO helped organize the drivers into a group called Transportation Fairness Portland. The labor federation, which is experiencig declining membership, sees this as a chance to gain inroads into nonunion workers in the "sharing" or "gig" economy.

"Our earnings are erratic and often fall below minimum wage after expenses," testified Owen Christofferson, a PSU student who also drives for Uber and Lyft.

Lyft's insurance coverage requires drivers to pay a $2,500 deductible, Christofferson said, which causes some to be out of commission for long periods until they can get their vehicles fixed after accidents. "This is an outrageous number for low-wage workers."

Rebecca Smith, director of the Work Structures Portfolio for the National Employment Law Project, cited a recent study showing Uber and Lyft drivers earn an average of about $9 an hour after deducting for fuel, insurance and other car expenses.

The driver relationship with the companies is "devoid of checks and balances," Smith testified.

Rena Davis, a senor public policy manager for Lyft, disputed that study, saying the average national earnings for Lyft drivers are $18.83 an hour, and Portland driver pay is in line with that.

Davis noted that more than 80 percent of Lyft drivers work less than 15 hours a week.

Rather than create a new board, Davis suggested the city expand its Private For-Hire Transportation Advisory Committee.

That panel lost considerable clout when the City Council paved the way for Uber and Lyft to enter the market three years ago, and adopted a new transportation code favorable to Uber and Lyft.

On Wednesday, Saltzman forgot to introduce members of his own Private For-Hire Transportation Advisory Committee before the end of invited testimony, and brought up Uber and Lyft leaders to address the council first. Usually the council hears from its own staff and advisors first, and Saltzman apologized.

The resolution adopted by the City Council also directs the transportation bureau to study liability insurance provisions for ride services, with an eye to equalizing those with the more rigorous insurance provided by traditional taxi companies. Uber and Lyft lobbied aggressively for a lower insurance standard for the period when their drivers have their app on and may be cruising through city streets. Taxi drivers argue the required Uber and Lyft insurance for that period is inadequate to protect pedestrians and other drivers, and gives the ride services an unfair advantage. Uber and Lyft have threatened to pull out of some markets if they can't get the lower insurance levels.

Former city Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversaw Uber and Lyft's entrance into the Portland market when he oversaw transportation, now calls it one of his big regrets that he backed down to Uber and Lyft pressure on the insurance issue. He has urged the council to correct that, and it appears ready to do so.

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@SteveLaw/Trib

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971-204-7866

@SteveLaw/Trib

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