Life as an Uber driver has pros and cons. On the one hand, drivers have the flexibility to choose when they’re on the clock and how much they want to work. For some, it’s a side gig providing extra cash for a rainy day fund. For others, it’s a sole means of support, with many drivers clocking 60 or more hours per week.

However, because Uber classifies its drivers as independent contractors, they’re not entitled to the benefits that employees receive – including workers’ comp. And that’s a big deal.

Why? Driving is a dangerous industry. Apart from the obvious hazard – traffic accidents – Uber drivers are also vulnerable to assault, armed robbery, sexual harassment, even murder. Taxi drivers are more likely to get killed on the job than police officers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They also have injury rates on par with deadly industries like mining and logging. There’s no reason to think Uber drivers are any less at risk.

A pilot program for drivers

Last spring, Uber rolled out injury protection insurance, a workers’ comp-type insurance for drivers in five states, including Pennsylvania. The insurance covers medical bills and partial earnings in the event of a work-related accident. It also provides survivor benefits for family members of drivers killed on the job.

However, the program is a far cry from workers’ comp, with several key differences:

  • It’s entirely voluntary. Drivers who opt in must pay the premiums themselves – roughly four cents per mile (funded through a five-cent rate increase that drivers otherwise have the option to pocket). Uber itself doesn’t shoulder any of the cost.
  • The program doesn’t appear to cover partial disabilities to the same extent as workers’ comp.
  • It caps wage coverage at half the driver’s weekly earnings.
  • It only pays up to $1 million in total benefits per accident.
  • It excludes coverage for work-related mental health disorders – a major gap given the industry’s heightened risk of sexual assault and other violent crimes.

The program doesn’t offer the same procedural rights as the state workers’ comp system. For example, in the event of a dispute, drivers must submit to binding arbitration before a private judge. They don’t have access to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and can’t challenge the decision in court. The right of drivers to seek an independent medical opinion is also limited.

Striking the right balance

While this insurance program doesn’t provide the same level of protection as workers’ comp, it’s comparable to similar insurance programs available to independent contractors. Workers in other sectors of the “gig industry” – that is, those who earn a living as contractors rather than employees – must often find their own injury coverage.

Uber’s business model is built on this distinction. With drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, the company not only sidesteps workers’ comp, but other benefits and employment regulations as well. This approach is part of what makes its services so affordable. Yet with a workforce of drivers totaling more than 300,000, Uber can’t afford to ignore its drivers and their well-being, either.