HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania overturned a ruling of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review that denied benefits to a former behavioral specialist who took on work as an Uber driver, according to a Jan. 24 opinion.
“The board concluded that (claimant Donald Lowman’s) work as an Uber driver constituted self-employment that rendered him ineligible for unemployment compensation,” Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote.
Despite the board’s decision, Leavitt said “because the Department of Labor and Industry did not demonstrate that claimant intended to enter into an independent business venture by becoming an Uber driver, we conclude that he remains eligible for benefits as a matter of law.”
Fisher & Phillips LLP attorney Richard R. Meneghello told the Pennsylvania Record that he “would hope other states would look to this decision if they are faced with similar situations.”
Although he said many states do have similar unemployment qualification laws in place, Meneghello said it was key that “the Pennsylvania court applied common sense when issuing their opinion.”
“The judges recognized that the 21st-century unemployed worker has options available to them that permit them to make some money to help tide them over until they find a new permanent job, and just because these are gig economy jobs doesn’t make a difference,” Meneghello said.
The Commonwealth Court said Lowman began driving for Uber on July 1, 2015. On Aug. 17, 2015, “the UC Service Center determined that claimant was not entitled to benefits notwithstanding the loss of his job with (Resources for Human Development).”
According to the court’s ruling, the board decided that Lowman was self-employed because he “used his own mobile phone and vehicle; paid for the vehicle maintenance and fuel; was required to carry insurance, a driver license, and vehicle registration; and set his own hours. Claimant was able to accept or refuse assignments from Uber and allowed to drive for others.”
In addition, the court said the board noted that Lowman’s “driving history with Uber was ‘frequent and prolonged, rather than occasional and limited.’”
However, the court said Lowman argued that he is not an "independently established commercial driver" and never claimed that he was.
Meneghello said Lowman’s case does not really involve the oft-debated question of the job status of Uber drivers (employee vs. contractor), but the board did attempt to address that question.
“It’s a different issue at play,” Meneghello said. “It looks like the administrative body below wanted to delve into that issue and apply an analysis that would examine that question, but the appellate court correctly swept that issue aside as irrelevant.”
For his part, Meneghello likes the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.
“It’s a great decision,” he said. “People should be able to earn some extra money on the side while looking for a permanent job.
"As long as they fulfill state requirements demonstrating that they are conducting a thorough and reasonable job search in between picking up rides for Uber or Lyft or GrubHub or wherever, they should not be disqualified from UI benefits.”