Uber drivers will be able to more easily apply for federal loans that are intended to help workers weather the coronavirus pandemic and the economic pain it’s caused.
The ride-hailing company on Tuesday said it has partnered with fintech lender Kabbage to provide drivers with a streamlined application for Paycheck Protection Program loans managed by the Small Business Administration.
Uber’s drivers are independent contractors, who are recruited with the pitch that they’ll be their own boss. But in the past few months, drivers have seen the downside of that model, with coronavirus reducing the number of rides they provide as much as 80%.
The new partnership is intended to make it easier for drivers to get the help they need. “They basically will go through a totally separate path that’s purpose-built for Uber drivers,” according to Kabbage CEO Rob Frowein.
Uber drivers who use the new applications will have some of the Uber-specific information automatically filled out for them, including, with their permission, payroll information.
“It helps streamline the process, which can be confusing or challenging if you don’t have a lot of familiarity with tax documentation,” says Frowein. Kabbage says that its tools have enabled 90% of independent contractors across all fields who are approved for PPP loans through its platform to have “a fully automated experience” — that is, get approval without additional assistance from staff, making the process faster.
For Kabbage, the PPP program has become a showcase for its automated loan processing. So far, Frowein says that Kabbage has originated more than 143,000 such loans totaling more than $4.15 billion, with an average loan size of $29,000.
That compares to 257,000 loans originated by the program’s top lender, JPMorgan Chase, averaging $111,000, as of June 6, the most recent available data. Meanwhile, Bank of America has originated 326,000 loans averaging $77,000.
Kabbage, which is hundreds of times smaller than those banking giants, is able to issue loans at such volumes, Frowein said, because so many applications are process automatically.
For Uber, encouraging its drivers to take out PPP loans has complex implications. Legislators and activists have long targeted the ride-hailing company for allegedly misclassifying its drivers as independent contractors, who don’t receive most benefits, and don’t pay into traditional unemployment insurance. The pushback includes a new law in California making it much harder for Uber and other companies to classify workers as independent contractors. Uber is fighting the law in court, and by advocating for a ballot measure that would exempt them from it.
Meanwhile, the recent CARES act temporarily expanded unemployment benefits to many independent contractors. Uber has published a guide to help drivers apply for those benefits. In a statement sent to employees about the Kabbage application, Uber warned that receiving a PPP loan may disqualify drivers from receiving expanded unemployment.
Alex Rosenblat, author of the book Uberland and a senior researcher at the think tank Data & Society, says drivers should seek any financial resources available to them, including emergency grants from Uber itself. But she also said that promoting PPP loans to drivers could benefit Uber by reinforcing the idea that drivers are entrepreneurs rather than misclassified employees.
“Uber’s constantly trying to make the case that drivers prefer to be independent contractors,” said Rosenblat, adding that a large number of drivers receiving PPP loans may bolster that argument. “It might not have much bearing in a labor law dispute, but it could be persuasive in the court of public opinion.”
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