City Council Picks Up the Pieces

Adler and Kitchen celebrate May 7. (Photo by John Anderson)

On Monday, May 9, Uber and Lyft announced that Prop 1's defeat had "forced" them to leave Austin. However, no one at City Hall agrees with that take – "They chose to leave precipitously, with hardly any notice," emphasized Council Member Ann Kitchen. "We didn't ask them to leave and we'd like them to stay." Yet the stark reality is that Uber and Lyft's actions have left thousands of Austin drivers and riders in the lurch, and it's on the city to figure out how to fix things.

Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, who worked to oppose Prop 1, has repeatedly urged the city to not "turn a deaf ear" to drivers who suddenly find themselves out of work and who "have kids to feed." Harding hopes that some of those drivers will be able to find similar work driving for companies such as Instacart, Uber Eats, Favor, and others. However, he sees the crisis drivers are facing as just one piece of Austin's affordability problem. "I don't want people to get so caught up in this election that we forget about the bigger issues we're facing," he told the Chronicle. "There are people who are concerned about what they're going to eat tomorrow. There are people who might have to sell their house because the taxes are too high. People are affected differently, but everyone's affected."

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo is considering drafting a resolution calling on the city to investigate ways it can support out-of-work drivers and alternative employers. Mayor Steve Adler told the Chronicle that the city is considering having an "onboarding fair" to get as many drivers working for the remaining TNCs as smoothly as possible. The mayor also announced in a press release that the city is "exploring a local nonprofit TNC with Austin entrepreneurs," which, as he clarified in an interview, would not mean that the city would be directly involved in the nonprofit, but that it would support a nonprofit if it's created.

In addition to working to find short-term solutions in Uber and Lyft's absence, council members also have to continue hammering out the details of the existing regulations. Former city council member and current Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice spokesperson Laura Morrison said that she interprets the Prop 1 vote as a vote for "sticking with fingerprinting as a requirement." Mobility Committee Chair Kitchen agrees that fingerprinting must stay. She told the Chronicle that a fingerprint-based background check is the most reliable way of verifying that someone is who they say they are. The vote "reaffirms what I had been hearing from people, that they wanted public safety."

Adler said that the city's public safety officers report that fingerprinting provides a "biometric link that assists in post-incident investigation and prosecution" and that it's important to "allow for that option." He continues to push for his "Thumbs Up" plan, which would allow drivers to choose whether to undergo fingerprinting. Riders could then choose whether to accept a ride from an un-fingerprinted driver. "Different people feel comfortable in different situations," he said. He interprets the vote not as a clear mandate on requiring fingerprints, but instead as a "vote of confidence" in the city's elected officials' ability to do their job.

The mayor added that he had been frustrated by the fact of the vote itself. Prop 1 "sucked all the air out of the room as soon as the initial petition was filed," he said. "There was nothing anybody could do anymore."

Council has yet to decide how exactly a potential driver's criminal record should come into play. A list of disqualifying convictions was brought forth on April 7, but sent back to the transportation department for further consideration. Tovo said that relevant crimes, such as drunk driving and violent offenses, should be the focus. Adler said, "The thought that somebody should be able to pay their debt to society and then be considered as having paid their debt to society as we did in the fair chance hiring [resolution] makes a lot of sense," but noted that fair chance principles needed to be balanced with public safety concerns.

Besides working on the current regulations, there's the possibility that Council will look into providing what labor protections it can to drivers. "It doesn't matter what the business model is," said Texas AFL-CIO Communications Director Ed Sills, "[both taxi and TNC] drivers haven't been treated fairly." Council Member Leslie Pool told the Chronicle that she is very interested in having that conversation. "I kept watching the debate [over public safety], thinking, where can I insert this?" She said she wants to make sure that the rules regarding insurance are fair and understandable to drivers, and that drivers are properly compensated for using their own cars for work. Like many, she thinks it's unclear whether TNC drivers are actually independent contractors. But if they are, she wants to make sure they're being afforded all the protections to which independent contractors are entitled.

Adler said, "These are all concerns that come out of new economies and new ways of doing business. It's not unlike the Industrial Revolution, where child labor laws came from. That didn't happen overnight. They worked through those issues ... I think that we're in the same place." He continued, "I didn't like this vote. I didn't like either solution. Neither of the results put us in a good place, and now we need to get to a good place."

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