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The ride-sharing company Lyft announced an education program for its drivers today. Lyft will offer access to discounted online GED and college courses. The move is an interesting experiment in the gig economy, where a growing class of workers receive no benefits from a boss and yet competition for their time is fierce. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Lyft is rolling out this pilot program with Guild Education, a Denver-based startup that plays matchmaker between workers and dozens of nonprofit online schools. I tell Lyft driver Shanae Watkins about it. And her reaction...
SHANAE WATKINS: Oh, wow.
SHAHANI: Does that interest you?
WATKINS: Yes, it definitely does.
SHAHANI: Watkins, a single mom raising three kids in Baltimore, is working on her bachelor's in psychology, taking online classes.
WATKINS: I want to be a behavioral health therapist. I really feel like that's my calling.
SHAHANI: She also drives for Uber, GrubHub, Amazon Flex and pretty much feels no loyalty to any of them. It's all about earnings. But if this new education benefit saves her money, she says, she would certainly drive a lot more for Lyft. She's excited.
WATKINS: I am excited. Like, as soon as we get off the phone I'm probably going to Google and see what I can read up and what the requirements are on it.
SHAHANI: In this new program, drivers get tuition discounts - 5 percent to 20 percent. And the company says the average driver getting a degree saves more than $4,000 dollars a year. Drivers can get an associate's, bachelor's or master's degree online in subjects like IT, nursing, social work, occupational therapy and business. They can also take English as a Second Language classes or get a GED.
GABE COHEN: Those who are successful in business listen to their customers. And, you know, in many ways drivers are our customers.
SHAHANI: Gabe Cohen is Lyft general manager in Denver. It's a funny paradox in the gig economy. On the one hand, companies like Lyft and Uber claim their workers are contractors who are not entitled to benefits. They fight tooth and nail in court to defend that position. On the other hand, these companies desperately need more drivers, so are trying to figure out what benefits they can offer to appeal to working people. Cohen says this education program is very much an effort to recruit and retain drivers. Uber offers nothing comparable for now.
COHEN: The companies that stay true to their values and their mission ultimately will end up being successful.
SHAHANI: David Weil, dean at Brandeis University's public policy school, is not impressed. He believes that many Lyft drivers are being misclassified, that they are employees entitled to benefits. And he says Lyft is just doing what many, many employers do.
DAVID WEIL: It's a respectful thing for an employer to do for the people who work for them. But I would certainly not in any way give them a pass on the broader issue of how they treat that workforce and how they classify that workforce just because they're providing these benefits.
SHAHANI: Lyft audited the pilot program to make sure it does not open the floodgates to new legal claims that workers are employees. In-house lawyers determined it doesn't because only benefits that serve as compensation, like health care, could put the independent contractor status in jeopardy. And note - Lyft is an NPR sponsor. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.
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