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Seattle City Council takes up changes to new minimum wage law

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In January, Seattle became one of two cities in the country to mandate a minimum wage for delivery workers for gig companies such as DoorDash and Instacart. But the companies are pushing back, hiking up fees for customers to offset the costs. That has Seattle politicians, restaurants and some workers worried. Here's Lilly Ana Fowler from member station KNKX.

LILLY ANA FOWLER, BYLINE: At about 5 p.m. on a weekday, just as a lot of people are getting out of work, I climb into the car of 49-year-old Carmen Figueroa. Figueroa started doing delivery gig work about seven years ago, since it allows her to take time off when pain in her back flares up.

CARMEN FIGUEROA: So I have Ankylosing spondylitis. And I don't think I said it right (laughter).

FOWLER: That's a mouthful.

We drive around to see if any pings for deliveries come through her DoorDash app, but Figueroa says orders have slowed down since the start of the year. For example, one day this past January...

FIGUEROA: I was on for about 4 1/2 hours and I had four deliveries.

FOWLER: The dramatic drop in orders is likely tied to Seattle's new minimum wage law for delivery drivers, which says workers must make the equivalent of $19.97 per hour. When the law rolled out, companies like Instacart, DoorDash and Uber Eats raised customer fees anywhere from $5 to $25 per delivery.

FIGUEROA: They want this to fail. They are doing everything that they can to make it fail. They're hurting their customers, they're hurting the restaurants, they're hurting the drivers to make it fail so they cannot be regulated.

FOWLER: DoorDash declined to be interviewed, but in an email, a spokesperson for the company called the new pay standards for workers excessive and said they introduced fees to offset labor costs. Spokespeople for both Instacart and Uber Eats also said the new pay standards were unbalanced. At a recent city council meeting, a number of restaurant owners testified against the new minimum wage law, including Peter Pak, who runs a Korean restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER PAK: I do understand the intent of the new ordinance and do respect the minimum wage but just want to express our negative impact that it's had on our business. Our orders have been down about 40%, 50%.

FOWLER: Some drivers have also spoken out against the legislation, though many continue to support it. This week, city council members unveiled proposed changes to the law. They say they aren't able to tell private companies what they can charge for service fees, so instead they're proposing that companies compensate drivers less for their time and mileage. Here's Seattle City Council President Sara Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARA NELSON: My interest is to come to an agreement that makes those fees go away so that the cost of deliveries is lower, so that it drives demand up.

FOWLER: Worker advocates point out there's no guarantee the app companies will drop the higher customer fees even if the amendments are adopted. A DoorDash spokesperson would only say they plan to explore all options to increase affordability for consumers. Representatives for Instacart and Uber Eats also would not confirm that they would eliminate the higher fees. Veena Dubal is a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the gig economy. She says any city or state government that has tried to regulate gig companies has faced similar resistance.

VEENA DUBAL: They've made this threat everywhere that if you make us treat these workers like employees with minimum wages, then we're going to pass all of those expenses onto the consumers.

FOWLER: Dubal says gig workers all over the country are struggling to get basic labor protections, and a repeal in Seattle could make that fight harder. The Seattle City Council is expected to vote on whether to change the minimum wage law in the coming weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Lilly Ana Fowler in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "TIRED OF FIGHTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lilly Ana Fowler
Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. Before joining KNKX, she worked for the online news organization Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. She's also worked as a producer with the national PBS show "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" and a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, Slate Magazine, Mother Jones, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. She was born in Mexico, grew up in the border town of Nogales, and is fluent in Spanish.