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It’s a Ballot Fight for Survival for Gig Companies Like Uber

OAKLAND, Calif. — By late August, the urgency was becoming clear. Top executives of Uber, Lyft and the delivery service DoorDash met to discuss a California ballot measure that would exempt them from a new state labor law and save their companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

The survival of their businesses was on the ballot.

Days later, political strategists responded to the executives’ concerns by telling the companies, which had already pledged $90 million to back the measure, that they needed to spend a lot more if they wanted to win, said three people familiar with the discussions, who were not allowed to talk about them publicly.

The fight over the ballot measure, Proposition 22, has become the most expensive in the state’s history since then, with its backers contributing nearly $200 million and 10 days still to go until the Nov. 3 election. Along the way, the companies have repeatedly been accused of heavy-handed tactics; a lawsuit filed on Thursday claims Uber is coercing the support of its drivers.

Despite the big spending and a barrage of television advertising, only 39 percent of likely voters said they supported Uber and Lyft in a poll last month by the University of California, Berkeley, while 36 percent opposed their proposal and others were undecided. People close to the campaign said they would want to see close to 60 percent approval in polling before they could breathe a sigh of relief.

The ballot measure, which is also being backed by Instacart and a delivery company that Uber is acquiring, Postmates, could be a harbinger for gig companies in the rest of the country.

Prop 22 would exempt the companies from complying with a law that went into effect at the beginning of the year, while offering limited benefits to drivers. The law is intended to force them to treat gig workers as employees, but Uber and its peers have resisted, fearing that the cost of benefits like unemployment insurance and health care could tip them into a downward financial spiral.

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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times

Though Uber and Lyft, for example, are publicly traded companies with a combined worth of $70.5 billion, they have never been profitable. They lose billions of dollars each year, and the pandemic has made turning a profit even more difficult. DoorDash, which has filed to go public, has also struggled. Analysts estimate that complying with California’s gig-worker law could cost Uber, which lost $1.8 billion in its most recent quarter, as much as $500 million a year.

Uber said it planned to cut off work for the approximately 158,000 California drivers who were active on the platform each quarter if its ballot measure failed. It would employ roughly 51,000 remaining drivers, it said, and raise fares to meet the higher business costs.

The ballot fight gained additional urgency Thursday evening when the California First District Court of Appeal ruled that Uber and Lyft must treat their California drivers as employees under the new labor law. The state attorney general and the city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego had sued the companies in May to enforce the law.

“If Prop 22 does not win, we will do our best to adjust,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, in a Wall Street Journal interview this week. “Where in California we can operate is a question mark, and the size and scale of the business will be substantially reduced.”

In past dust-ups with local regulators, Uber rallied its passengers for support. The pandemic has made that difficult, so it has urged its tech employees to get involved and used its app to reach out to drivers for support.

The Yes on 22 campaign also started an effort to organize drivers, a move copied from the labor groups that have long tried to organize drivers to fight for better working conditions. And it has forged relationships with high-profile advocacy groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the California chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

“Drivers want independence plus benefits by a four-to-one margin, and we’re going to fight for them,” said Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for Lyft. “We believe California voters are on the side of drivers, too.”

A spokesman for DoorDash, Taylor Bennett, said, “Our support for Prop 22 is part of our commitment to protecting the economic opportunity that tens of thousands of Californians value and the access to delivery that so many restaurants rely on, especially at such a critical time.”

A spokeswoman for Instacart declined to comment. Postmates did not respond to a request for comment.

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In an effort to gain support, the companies have bombarded riders and drivers with push notifications, campaign ads that appear in their apps and emails promoting Prop 22. Before logging on to start work, Uber drivers have been presented with a slide show of warnings about how their lives could change if the proposition fails.

“A no vote would mean far fewer jobs,” one of the slides on the Uber app warned. “That’s why we’re fighting so hard to win.”

In the lawsuit filed against Uber on Thursday, drivers claim that the messages violated a state law that forbids employers to coerce their employees to participate in political activity.

“I can’t rule out that employers have engaged in coercive tactics like this in the past, but I have never heard of an employer engaging in this sort of barrage of coercive communications on such a broad level, ever,” said one of the attorneys for the drivers, David Lowe, a partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe. “It is such an extraordinary thing, from my perspective, for Uber to exploit this captive audience of workers.” Mr. Lowe said he opposed Prop 22.

Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman, said, “This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts.” He added, “It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22.”

In early October, the Prop 22 campaign was denounced by Senator Bernie Sanders after a fake progressive group calling itself Feel the Bern endorsed the proposition in a campaign flier that implied Uber had the backing of progressive leaders. The mailers were, in fact, sent by a firm that creates political mailers representing different views.

“The Prop 22 campaign is working hard to reach voters across the state and the political spectrum to ensure they know that drivers overwhelmingly support Prop 22,” said Geoff Vetter, a spokesman for the Yes on 22 campaign, which is funded by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy companies.

Questions have also been raised about the N.A.A.C.P. endorsement. A political consulting firm run by Alice Huffman, the leader of the California N.A.A.C.P., has received $85,000 from the gig companies’ campaign, public records show. The payment was reported earlier by the news site CalMatters.

Mr. Vetter said the payments were for “outreach.” The N.A.A.C.P. did not respond to a request for comment.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Uber held an all-hands meeting this month for employees to meet drivers who support the proposition, and sent several emails encouraging staff to lobby friends and family.

Although the internal messages were upbeat, the policy staff raised concerns with campaign consultants during the meetings in late August and early September, the people familiar with those meetings said. Among their worries: that the ballot language was unfavorable to the companies, and that people were voting earlier than usual because of the pandemic, meaning advertising would need to be rapid and aggressive.

“We look at the data every day, and our metrics show a tight race,” Justin Kintz, Uber’s head of public policy, said in an early October email to Uber employees, obtained by The New York Times. “At the same time, with continued strong execution against our plan, we’re confident we can win.”

While the email noted that campaigning was optional, Mr. Kintz encouraged employees to participate in texting banks to contact voters and to promote the campaign in conversations with friends.

“The big reason that you’re seeing so much spending is because of the high stakes in this election,” said Mr. Vetter, the spokesman for the campaign. “Hundreds of thousands of jobs are on the line. These are services that millions of Californians rely on.”

The opposition campaign, which is funded by labor unions, has raised about $15 million. Supporters of the No on 22 campaign have argued that voters should reject the push by tech companies, and that the measure would harm workers already at a disadvantage during the pandemic.

“Proposition 22 will make racial inequality worse in California at the worst possible time,” said Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat. “You have very clearly crossed the line when you try to claim the equity mantle for a campaign that has always been about allowing multibillion-dollar app companies to write their own law so that they can keep exploiting the labor of drivers, eight in 10 of whom are people of color.”

No matter the outcome of the vote, the gig companies and their opponents are likely to take their campaigns to Washington. Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit similar to the one that the California court decided on Thursday evening, and Uber hopes to avoid continued state-by-state battles by pressing for federal legislation.

Erin Griffith and Noam Scheiber contributed reporting.

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Appeals Court Says Uber and Lyft Must Treat California Drivers as Employees

OAKLAND, Calif. — Uber and Lyft must treat their California drivers as employees, providing them with the benefits and wages they are entitled to under state labor law, a California appeals court ruled Thursday.

The decision points to growing agreement between the state courts and lawmakers that gig workers do not have the independence necessary for them to be considered contractors. But the California electorate will get to weigh in soon, too, when they vote in less than two weeks on a ballot initiative sponsored by gig economy start-ups to exempt themselves from the law.

The ruling by the California First District Court of Appeal is the result of a lawsuit brought by the state’s attorney general and the city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The state and city agencies sued the ride-hailing companies in May to enforce a new state labor law that aimed to make gig workers into employees.

“Every other employer follows the law,” Matthew Goldberg, deputy city attorney with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, told the appeals court during arguments last week. “This is dollars and wages and money that is being stolen from drivers by virtue of the misclassification.”

After a lower court ruled that Uber and Lyft must immediately comply and hire the drivers, the companies fought back. They threatened to shut down completely in California and appealed the decision, winning a last-minute reprieve from the appellate court while it considered the case.

This time, Uber and Lyft are unlikely to threaten a similar shutdown. The appellate court required them to develop plans to employ drivers in case the ruling did not go in their favor, and the companies have considered establishing franchise-like businesses in the state to avoid directly hiring drivers.

Uber and Lyft may choose to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. But it could be a futile effort. In 2018, that court established a strict employment test that became the basis for the law Uber and Lyft are now fighting.

“We’re considering our appeal options, but the stakes couldn’t be higher for drivers,” said Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman. He argued that if the ballot measure, Proposition 22, fails, hundreds of thousands of drivers would lose work and the company might shut down its services in parts of the state

Uber and Lyft have said that it would be too expensive to hire all of their drivers, causing catastrophic harm to their businesses. But that does not justify the losses for drivers who went without workplace protections, the appellate court said.

“When violation of statutory workplace protections takes place on a massive scale, as alleged in this case, it causes public harm over and above the private interest of any given individual,” the court wrote in its decision on Thursday.

State officials have argued that the companies must comply with the law, known as Assembly Bill 5, so that workers can obtain sick leave, overtime and other benefits — needs that have become especially pressing during the pandemic.

“This is a victory for the people of California and for every driver who has been denied fair wages, paid sick days, and other benefits by these companies,” San Francisco’s city attorney, Dennis Herrera, said in a statement. “The law is clear: Drivers can continue to have all of the flexibility they currently enjoy while getting the rights they deserve as employees. The only thing preventing that is Uber and Lyft’s greed.”

But Uber and Lyft have argued that they are technology companies, not transportation businesses. Employing drivers would force them to raise fares and hire only a small fraction of the drivers who currently work for them, they said.

The companies are sponsoring a state ballot initiative, Proposition 22, to exempt them from the law and allow them to continue classifying drivers as independent contractors, while providing them with limited benefits. The court gave Uber and Lyft a grace period in which to make changes, and if the ballot initiative is successful, it could throw the ruling into question.

“This ruling makes it more urgent than ever for voters to stand with drivers and vote yes on Prop. 22,” said Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for Lyft.

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Seattle Passes Minimum Pay Rate for Uber and Lyft Drivers

The Seattle City Council approved a minimum pay standard for Uber and Lyft drivers on Tuesday, becoming the second city in the country to do so.

Under the law, effective in January, ride-hailing companies must pay a sum roughly equivalent, after expenses, to the city’s $16 minimum hourly wage for businesses with more than 500 employees.

“The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our systems of worker protections, leaving many frontline workers like gig workers without a safety net,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement.

Seattle’s law, passed in a 9-to-0 vote, is part of a wave of attempts by cities and states to regulate gig-economy transportation services. It is modeled on a measure that New York City passed in 2018. Last year, California approved legislation effectively requiring Uber and Lyft to classify drivers as employees rather than independent contractors, which would assure them of protections like a minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. The companies are backing an initiative on the November ballot that would exempt their drivers from the California law.

Uber and Lyft have received more favorable treatment from federal regulators. Last week, the Labor Department proposed a rule that would probably classify their drivers as contractors, though it would not override state laws like California’s.

As in New York, the Seattle law will create a formula for minimum compensation for each trip — a combination of per-minute and per-mile rates that are “scaled up” by what is known as the utilization rate, or the fraction of each hour during which drivers have a passenger in their car. The idea is that a lower utilization rate should correspond to a higher per-minute and per-mile rate, to compensate drivers for being less busy.

The formula is intended to produce hourly pay of just under $30 before expenses and to motivate the companies to keep their drivers busier rather than flood the market with cars to reduce passengers’ waits.

A Lyft spokesman, CJ Macklin, said, “The city’s plan is deeply flawed and will actually destroy jobs for thousands of people — as many as 4,000 drivers on Lyft alone — and drive ride-share companies out of Seattle.”

Uber declined to comment, but said in a recent letter to the Seattle City Council that New York’s policy had resulted in fewer rides and higher prices for passengers, and that it had led the company to restrict the number of drivers on the platform at once.

Michael Reich, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was an architect of the New York measure and advised Seattle on its new law, said that average driver pay had increased in New York and that overall revenue had risen enough to offset the drop in demand because of higher fares.

The growth in rides slowed after the policy went into effect, Mr. Reich said, but added that this was largely for reasons unrelated to the policy.

Beyond the pay standard, the Seattle measure stipulates that the companies must hand over all tips to drivers, that the tips cannot count toward the minimum and that the companies must provide protective equipment like masks to drivers or reimburse them for these costs.

A broader program proposed by Ms. Durkan, Fare Share, was approved last fall. The agenda included a tax on Uber and Lyft of 51 cents a ride, part of which has helped fund a streetcar project downtown and provide support for drivers, including help with appeals if they are removed from either platform.

The Fare Share measure required the city to set a minimum pay standard for ride-hailing drivers, but mandated a study to determine the amount.

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Why Unemployment Claims May Be Overcounted by Millions

Economic statistics were never designed to measure the sudden shutdown and restart of large segments of the U.S. economy. Still, if there is one question that the government seemingly should be able to answer, it is this: How many Americans are receiving unemployment benefits?

Since the start of the pandemic, however, federal data on the unemployment insurance system has been plagued by errors, double counting and other issues. And even after the initial flood of layoffs slowed, the problems have only grown in recent weeks, in part because of an apparent spike in fraudulent claims for benefits.

The biggest problems appear to involve Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program created by Congress in March to cover freelancers, self-employed workers and others who are left out of the regular unemployment system. Federal data implies that nearly 15 million Americans are now receiving benefits under the program, but some economists believe that overstates the true number by millions.

The scale of the overcounting issue varies by state. In Texas, figures for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims closely match the federal government’s. But in Montana, the state says just 9,000 people are receiving benefits under the program, versus the more than 60,000 reported by the federal government.

The biggest problems, at least in absolute numbers, are in California. The federal data suggests that nearly seven million Californians are receiving pandemic benefits. The state’s data shows that number is under two million.

The counting issues don’t change the broad contours of the crisis: By any measure, millions of Americans are relying on unemployment benefits to buy groceries and pay rent. But they do make it harder to answer basic questions about how quickly the economy is improving and how successful government programs have been at mitigating the damage.

“This does really underscore just how important it is that we make key investments in our data infrastructure, because now we know what it feels like when we don’t have good data,” said Heidi Shierholz, director of policy for the Economic Policy Institute.

The United States doesn’t have an unemployment insurance system. It has 53 systems, one for each state plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Each operates independently, with its own rules and procedures, subject to policies set at the federal level.

State unemployment offices report data to the U.S. Labor Department, which compiles the numbers into a weekly report. One number in that report, known as “continuing claims,” counts filings of people who have previously filed for benefits and have remained unemployed since the previous week.

That figure is often treated by economists as an estimate of the number of people receiving unemployment benefits. But that isn’t actually what it measures, at least not directly. It counts applications, not all of which are approved. And rather than counting the number of individuals applying for benefits, it counts the total number of weeks of benefits they apply for.

That distinction doesn’t matter much in normal times, when most people apply for benefits on a weekly basis and are quickly approved. But because benefits are paid retroactively, if there are delays processing applications, people can end up applying for multiple weeks of benefits at once, skewing the continuing-claims number.

That seems to be a particular issue in California, according to a new analysis of state unemployment data by researchers at the California Policy Lab. Some of the recent flood of applications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance there are from people saying they lost jobs in the early weeks of the pandemic, meaning they could be owed months’ worth of benefits, said Till von Wachter, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was an author of the Policy Lab analysis.

State officials say many backdated claims in that new flood may be fraudulent. But others may not be, Mr. von Wachter said. Someone in the film industry, for example, might not have applied for benefits right away last spring, on the assumption that business would bounce back relatively quickly. But now, with no reopening in sight, the worker might decide to file — and to claim, legitimately, to have been out of work since April.

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Credit…Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Weekly unemployment filings were not intended to be an economic indicator. They aren’t collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Labor Department agency that produces the unemployment rate and related measures, and they aren’t subject to the quality controls applied to official statistics.

Instead, the data is collected by the states and reported to the Employment and Training Administration, a Labor Department agency charged with overseeing the states’ unemployment systems. Asked about the data discrepancies, the department said the numbers were intended primarily for administrative purposes, like allocating federal funding for state employment agencies.

Economists pay attention to unemployment filings because they’re often an early-warning system for trouble in the labor market. But once the alarm has been sounded, economists usually turn to more reliable monthly and quarterly data to get a more complete picture of what is going on.

The speed of the present crisis has put a premium on timely data. At the same time, state unemployment systems, many of which run on decades-old software, were overwhelmed by the flood of applications for traditional unemployment benefits, while carrying out a new program that covered a separate category of workers. That made it hard for them to report accurate data.

“It’s a fast number, but that doesn’t make it a good number,” said Eliza Forsythe, a University of Illinois economist who studies unemployment.

The standard unemployment system leaves out a lot of people: freelancers, self-employed workers and people with too little work history to qualify. (That can include some low-paid part-time and low-wage workers.) The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is meant to fill that gap.

By many measures, the program has been a success, helping millions of workers who would otherwise have had no source of income. But data on the program has been troubled from the start. Many states took weeks to get the program up and running, and when they did, many did not begin reporting data right away.

Once the data started coming in, it was often hard to interpret — some states would report thousands of recipients one week, then zero the next. Processing backlogs made it hard to separate recent job losses from layoffs that happened early in the pandemic.

“The claims that are coming in are borderline nonsensical sometimes,” said Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist at RAND who studies the unemployment system.

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Credit…Nick Oxford/Reuters

The Labor Department says about 13 million people are receiving benefits under regular state unemployment programs. An additional 1.5 million or so are covered by various programs for people whose regular benefits have run out. Economists consider those figures generally reliable.

But few economists believe the federal government’s figures for the pandemic assistance program, which on paper is now larger than the regular state programs.

California’s data alone indicates the count of continuing claims could be overstated by about five million. Other states report their own discrepancies that, taken together, suggest the federal count could be inflated by a further two million or more, although too few states are reporting individual-level data to allow for a precise estimate.

Other sources, including surveys and federal spending data, likewise suggest that the number of people receiving benefits under the pandemic program is below 10 million, and perhaps as low as five million. That would mean the number of people receiving unemployment benefits of any kind right now is 20 million to 25 million, rather than the 30 million suggested by federal continuing-claims data.

The official unemployment insurance figures almost certainly overstate the number of people receiving benefits. But they might still underestimate the number of people whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.

Some groups, like undocumented immigrants, are excluded from the unemployment system. Others have been improperly denied benefits, or have been unable to apply. Surveys and other evidence suggest a sharp increase in food insecurity during the pandemic, a sign that even the expanded benefit programs aren’t reaching everyone in need.

“It’s both an overcount and an undercount at the same time,” Ms. Forsythe said.

The good news is that there is little evidence that the recent increase in unemployment claims, particularly in the pandemic program, reflects a real-world increase in the rate of job losses. While layoffs are continuing, most public and private data sources show a gradual improvement in the labor market. But those same sources suggest that progress has slowed in recent weeks, and that the absolute level of joblessness remains high.

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Uber and Lyft Threaten to Shut Down in California

OAKLAND, Calif. — Uber and Lyft threatened to suspend ride-hailing services throughout California on Thursday night, a defiant reaction to a judge who ordered the companies to reclassify their drivers as employees.

The ride-hailing blackout, which might begin at midnight Pacific Standard Time, could drag on for weeks, as Uber and Lyft battle a state labor law intended to give employment benefits to gig workers. An appeals court is weighing the companies’ requests to overturn the judge’s decision, but it is not clear when the court will issue a ruling.

State officials said the companies must comply with the law, known as Assembly Bill 5, so that workers have access to sick leave, overtime and other benefits — a need that has become more dire during the coronavirus pandemic.

But Uber and Lyft have argued that employing drivers would have a catastrophic impact on their businesses, forcing them to raise fares and hire only a small fraction of the drivers who currently work for them. They would temporarily shutter the businesses rather than comply, they said.

“This is not something we wanted to do, as we know millions of Californians depend on Lyft for daily, essential trips,” Lyft said in a blog post. “We are going to keep up the fight for a benefits model that works for all drivers and our riders.”

Uber and Lyft have long categorized drivers as independent contractors, an arrangement that the companies say allows drivers to have more control over where and when they drive. But this model imposes a financial burden on drivers, who are responsible for their own vehicle maintenance, health insurance and other expenses that employers traditionally cover.

Last year, the California Legislature passed A.B. 5 in an attempt to set clearer employment standards for the state and rein in gig-economy giants like Uber. Legislators argued that Uber shortchanged its drivers and exploited an unfair advantage over law-abiding businesses in the state.

Although the law went into effect in January, Uber and Lyft did not change their practices. They argued that A.B. 5 did not apply to them and spent tens of millions of dollars on a ballot initiative that, if passed in November, would exempt them from the law.

In May, California’s attorney general sued Uber and Lyft to force them to comply with A.B. 5. The standoff came to a head last week when a San Francisco Superior Court judge, Ethan Schulman, sided with the state, ordering Uber and Lyft to reclassify their drivers by Thursday.

Uber and Lyft have argued that they are technology companies and that drivers are not a core part of their business. But that “flies in the face of economic reality and common sense,” Judge Schulman wrote in his ruling. “Were this reasoning to be accepted, the rapidly expanding majority of industries that rely heavily on technology could with impunity deprive legions of workers of the basic protections afforded to employees by state labor and employment laws.”

“The court has weighed in and agreed: Uber and Lyft need to put a stop to unlawful misclassification of their drivers while our litigation continues,” said the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra. “Our state and workers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when big businesses try to skip out on their responsibilities.”

Rather than hire drivers, Uber and Lyft will shut down. The decision is likely to cause the businesses, which have already struggled financially because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, to lose even more money.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are among Uber’s largest markets, and Lyft has said it draws about 16 percent of its business from California. Uber planned to continue operating Uber Eats, its food delivery service, which has bolstered its revenue during the pandemic, a spokesman said.

Although the potential shutdown felt drastic to drivers and riders who depend on Uber and Lyft, the move is not without precedent. The companies have terminated their services in other regions rather than complying with local laws they oppose. The shutdowns have often pressured local governments to pass laws that are more friendly to Uber and Lyft.

In 2016, Uber and Lyft shut down in Austin, Texas, to protest an ordinance that required background checks that used fingerprints for drivers. They returned the next year after Texas passed a statewide law that excludes fingerprinting from the background check requirements.

That strategy could work again for Uber and Lyft if California voters approve the ballot measure in November. If the companies lose that vote, they are considering plans to establish franchise-like operations in California, inviting third parties to hire their drivers.

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Uber and Lyft Consider Franchise-Like Model in California

OAKLAND, Calif. — Uber and Lyft, which are facing mounting pressure to classify their freelance drivers as employees in California, are looking for another way.

One option that both companies are seriously discussing is licensing their brands to operators of vehicle fleets in California, according to three people with knowledge of the plans. The change would resemble an independently operated franchise, allowing Uber and Lyft to keep an arms-length association with drivers so that the companies would not need to employ them and pay their benefits.

The idea would effectively be a return to the days of how groups of black cars were run. Lyft has presented the plan to its board of directors, one person said. Uber, which already works with fleet operators in Germany and Spain, is also familiar with the business model.

The companies have not committed to the franchise-like plans, said the people with knowledge of the discussions, who asked to remain anonymous because the details are confidential. Uber and Lyft are waiting to see how California’s legal situation around drivers, who have been treated as independent contractors, plays out first, they said.

Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman, said the work on establishing fleets was “exploratory” and that the company was “not sure whether a fleet model would ultimately be viable in California.”

A Lyft spokeswoman, Julie Wood, said the company had looked at alternative models but favored an approach where drivers “remain independent and can work whenever they want while also receiving additional health care benefits and an earnings guarantee.”

The ride-hailing giants are considering how to retool their businesses as they grapple with a new California law, Assembly Bill 5, which could upend their services. The law, which was designed to grant employment benefits to gig workers, could force Uber and Lyft to categorize drivers as employees if it was shown that the drivers’ jobs were part of the companies’ core business, among other criteria.

Although the law went into effect in January, Uber and Lyft have not complied with it, arguing that they are simply tech platforms and are not transportation businesses. In May, California sued Uber and Lyft to enforce the new law.

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Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Their clash with the state is set to come to a head this week. This month, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ordered the companies to employ their drivers by Thursday. Executives at Uber and Lyft, who have argued that they cannot meet that deadline, have appealed the decision and warned that they would be forced to shut down their services as soon as Friday if the order was not reversed.

“If our efforts here are not successful, it would force us to suspend operations in California,” John Zimmer, Lyft’s president, said in an earnings call last week. California accounts for about 16 percent of Lyft’s business, he said.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, also said last week in an MSNBC interview that the company’s ride-hailing services in California would stop, at least temporarily, if the order was not changed.

“It’s a fork-in-the-road situation,” said Dan Ives, a managing director at Wedbush Securities who tracks the ride-hailing industry. “These are some of the tough decisions they need to make to save their business model.”

Uber and Lyft, which are based in San Francisco, have long considered their drivers to be contractors. That means that drivers are responsible for their own vehicle and maintenance costs and that Uber and Lyft do not pay for overtime, unemployment insurance or other expenses.

The companies have argued that this freelance model allows drivers to drive only when they want to. But critics have said it places unreasonable financial burdens on drivers and gives Uber and Lyft unfair advantages over businesses that follow employment laws.

Uber and Lyft have strenuously objected to A.B. 5 and have been fighting its reach. The companies have poured tens of millions of dollars into a ballot measure that would exempt them from the state law. Uber has also made changes to its product, such as showing fares to drivers upfront and allowing them to decline rides without facing penalties, to reinforce their status as independent contractors.

But behind the scenes, officials at Uber and Lyft also began discussing just-in-case options for their California businesses last year, the people with knowledge of the plans said.

At Uber, many of the proposed ideas were code-named with the names of characters from the Mario Bros. video game, like Luigi, the people said. The Washington Post reported earlier on Project Luigi, which included the changes to Uber’s app that give drivers more control over fares.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Another option that policy teams at both of the companies floated was the franchise-like model, the people with knowledge of the plans said.

Under the proposal, Uber and Lyft would invite other businesses to establish ride-hailing fleets using their platforms. That could bolster the companies’ claims that they were simply tech companies that built sophisticated dispatch services and that providing transportation was outside their core business, protecting them from A.B. 5’s requirements.

At Uber, the effort drew inspiration from the company’s operations in Germany and Spain, where transportation rules have already forced it to work with fleets, Mr. Kallman said.

Lyft based its plan on FedEx, which franchises some of its delivery routes to local operators, current and former employees said.

Uber and Lyft employees said the companies did not collaborate or share information about their plans with each other.

A franchise-like business can be challenging. Working with a fleet operator could increase costs because it introduces a third party who needs to be paid, potentially forcing Uber and Lyft to raise fares or reduce their service fees, current and former employees said. The companies would also likely have to surrender some control over driver behavior, leaving them more vulnerable to reputational damage if a driver harassed a passenger or a car was dirty.

Another hurdle is that few fleet operators in California are large enough to absorb Uber’s and Lyft’s business, partly because Uber and Lyft previously disrupted taxis, black cars and similar operations.

For now, the companies have staked their primary hopes on the ballot measure that would exempt them from A.B. 5, employees and financial analysts said. The initiative, Proposition 22, proposes minimum-wage standards and limited health benefits for drivers. It will appear on California’s ballot in November.

Whatever changes Uber and Lyft make to their businesses to comply with A.B. 5 will ultimately be expensive, said Mr. Ives of Wedbush Securities. He estimated that it would cost Uber $500 million a year and Lyft $200 million a year. Both companies are already unprofitable and have lost much of their ridership during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This legislation could really be a backbreaker,” Mr. Ives said.

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In Europe, Millions of Jobless Are Falling Through the Cracks

PARIS — Thierry Hombert stepped onto the balcony of his sparsely furnished apartment and took one last long look around. When the coronavirus hit France, the short-term catering gigs on which he lived for a decade disappeared, and he was now selling his home to make ends meet.

While millions of employees across Europe have been cast lifelines by government furlough programs meant to limit mass unemployment, Mr. Hombert and legions of other workers on precarious irregular contracts were excluded from that support.

“It’s people like us who are falling through the cracks — and we are many,” said Mr. Hombert, 50, who worried about finding himself out on the street. “We’re the ones being left behind.”

The furlough programs, widely credited with sparing over 60 million people from layoffs in Europe, have a major drawback: They don’t shelter millions of workers who aren’t on company payrolls, including the newly self-employed, freelancers and people on the kind of short-term contracts that employers have used en masse since the 2010 financial crisis to reduce labor costs.

These people generally have reduced access to unemployment benefits, which are far less generous than the furlough programs.

Around 15 million people in the European Union were unemployed in June, a rise of 700,000 since April, according to Eurostat, Europe’s statistics agency. Heavily seeding those ranks are people who had been on work contracts. They account for around four out of 10 workers in the industries hardest hit by Covid-19, including tourism, catering, restaurants and services where there is direct contact with other people, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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Credit…Francois Mori/Associated Press

These workers face bleak prospects for new employment in Europe’s deep recession, and have fewer social protections than furloughed employees, including scant access to sick leave, exposing many to steep income losses and the threat of further precariousness.

Mr. Hombert is among those who have taken a heavy hit. For 10 years, he forged a career in the catering industry by working on a relentless cycle of daily and hourly contracts.

On a typical day, he woke at 5 a.m. to work a business breakfast at one end of Paris, then headed to another part of town to service a glittering political or social dinner ending after midnight. Grabbing a few hours of sleep, he headed to a fresh gig in the morning, where he signed new temporary contracts all over again.

The work pulled in 3,000 euros ($3,500) a month — enough to pay living expenses, his €1,000 mortgage payment and support for his two teenage children. But his savings were liquidated last year when he and his wife divorced and he bought her share of the apartment, in Fresnes, a working-class suburb south of Paris.

When the pandemic wiped out his contracts, the catering firms that employed him put only permanent staff on furlough, reaping a subsidy from the government for not firing them.

Europe’s furlough subsidy programs don’t extend the same benefit to contract workers, throwing Mr. Hombert into an uncertain future.

His jobless benefits, which are less than half his normal income, last for only 180 days under unemployment rules governing the catering industry. After they expire in mid-August, he will go onto France’s basic welfare, which provides around 600 euros a month, not enough to take care of his expenses.

“Covid-19 has created a huge financial crisis,” said Mr. Hombert, who traded in his car, cut back on all but the basics and scrapped plans to take his children on vacation. “You try to plan two months out, but you can’t even do that,” he said. “Then you find yourself having to sell the apartment to get by.”

But engineering less pain may prove impossible. In Britain, the government also acted quickly to protect the economy, and was lauded for the scale of its measures. A plan to pay up to 80 percent of workers’ wages was announced before the nationwide lockdown went into force in March. By the middle of July, 9.5 million jobs were furloughed.

Still, more than one million people have fallen through the gaps in these support programs, including the self-employed and short-term workers, according to a parliamentary select committee report.

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Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Thousands have found a collective voice online using the hashtag #ExcludedUK, whose founders conducted research showing that at least three million people are receiving little or no support from the government.

Sonali Joshi, one of the founders, owns a film company working with Asian cinema. As the director of the company, most of her income comes from dividends, which makes her ineligible for the government’s self-employment income support program. The parliamentary report estimates there are 710,000 others like Ms. Joshi locked out of aid this way.

“We’re stuck in this situation of real uncertainty,” Ms. Joshi said. “Four months have passed already but we don’t know how to recover in many ways without the support that really should be there.”

Ms. Joshi faced unappealing options, including putting herself on furlough to earn about 500 pounds ($637) a month, or continue working, though all of her projects were on pause. In the end, she chose furlough. But with business down, she can’t give any new projects to the 200 freelancers who work with her.

The situation will grow bleaker in autumn, when many of Europe’s furlough programs expire and a tsunami of new layoffs hits. Airbus, Renault, British Airways and other European corporations have announced huge downsizing despite taking government furlough subsidies. In France alone, President Emmanuel Macron has warned of one million more jobs lost.

“In September, when you will have large numbers joining the unemployment system with good employability in front of people who’ve been unemployed since the beginning of the crisis, it’s going to be a drama,” said Christophe Catoir, the president for France and northern Europe at Adecco, Europe’s biggest temporary employment agency.

European governments have sought to cushion the blow by expanding some protections for nonstandard workers, easing access to paid sick leave and introducing or increasing unemployment benefits. In France and Denmark, temporary income replacement programs were extended to the self-employed. Germany and other countries began funding paid furloughs for people contracted directly with temporary employment agencies.

The support goes only so far. At Adecco, 78 percent of temps lost work during France’s quarantine and received furlough pay for the duration of their short-term contracts, which in France average around seven days. But when the contracts ended, they scrambled to find new work even as employers stopped hiring.

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Credit…Cristina Quicler/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Governments are trying to help people like them by pumping billions into retraining for the unemployed. But the programs can sometimes feel futile for those who need fast access to new jobs.

When Mr. Hombert applied at the unemployment office for work assisting elderly people and cleaning their homes, he was told he would need two years of training. He also finds himself in competition with younger workers for summer jobs at do-it-yourself stores and other big shops.

“At age 50, trying to find work is almost impossible,” he said. “Jobs don’t go to us.”

Landlords won’t rent to Mr. Hombert because he has no job, and he faces a wait of up to four years for public housing. Without a home, he worries he won’t be able to host his children, who stayed with him every other week after the divorce.

“It’s hard to live,” Mr. Hombert said, his voice faltering. “You hear stories about people winding up on the street and you think, ‘that could be me.’ It’s frightening.”

Enrico Bergamini, the author of a report on inequality arising from Covid-19 for Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, said government policy responses to the crisis still left too many facing unprecedented vulnerability.

“The issue will be how do we recover from this shock, which is widening inequality gaps,” said Mr. Bergamini.

“Workers are unprotected and vulnerable because we let them be.”

Eshe Nelson contributed reporting from London and Théophile Larcher from Paris.

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In Picking Up Work Here and There, Many Miss Out on Unemployment Check

Annie Frodeman often worked 40 hours a week or more — full time by most lights. She just worked them at two jobs.

Four or five mornings a week before the coronavirus outbreak, she worked as an airport ramp agent for Piedmont Airlines in Burlington, Vt. — hoisting bags on and off planes, refilling the water tanks, and sometimes emptying aircraft lavatories — for less than $15 an hour. The rest of the time she signed up for shifts in the emergency room at University of Vermont Medical Center, registering patients for $20 an hour.

While Burlington is expensive, Ms. Frodeman said, the two jobs together provided the income and flexibility that she needed to pay her bills while attending graduate school part time. But once the pandemic hit, shifts dried up.

The airline furloughed her. She hoped to make up the hours at the hospital, but soon her 35-to-45-hour weeks there were cut to a single eight- or four-hour shift. “Last week I didn’t get anything,” she said.

Having multiple jobs is business as usual for millions of Americans. But many cobbled-together employment arrangements that enabled people to get by when the jobless rate was skimming along at record lows collapsed once the pandemic curbed or closed large swaths of the economy.

The economic shock quickly exposed the mismatch between the reality of making a living in 2020 America and the systems built to protect workers. People who rely on paychecks from different employers are already more likely to have shifting schedules and unpredictable weekly paychecks, low hourly wages and the absence of benefits like sick days and health insurance. They are also more likely to be Black, young and without a college degree.

And when hard times hit, they are excluded from regular state unemployment benefits.

“There’s a misfit between the enormous volatility and part-time jobs that make up the ways that people cobble together making money and the system that’s going to cut you a check,” said Susan J. Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies low-skilled hourly jobs. “The rules of the game have changed,” she said, but protections for workers, like jobless benefits or laws that require advance notice of schedule changes and extra compensation for last-minute switches, have not caught up.

Since the pandemic began, measures meant to kick in when things sour have strained to keep pace. Millions of Americans and their families have lost health insurance tied to their jobs. More than one in four households with children don’t have enough to eat, according to the Hamilton Project, an economic policy arm of the Brookings Institution. Food pantries across the country have been swamped despite an enormous surge in food stamp enrollment.

When economic shutdowns began rolling through the country, Congress focused on the existing unemployment insurance system as the primary vehicle for assistance. Lawmakers moved quickly to fill in some of the holes and created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, a temporary benefit for the ranks of freelancers and part-timers, as well as contract, self-employed and gig workers, who are ineligible for normal state benefits.

The emergency federal program, which expires at the end of the year, provided a lifeline for millions of people, but it has struggled with a slow rollout and complicated rules, as well as overburdened administrators and computers. Organized fraud has further bedeviled the process. Ms. Frodeman, who applied in May, still hasn’t received her first check. Fortunately, she said, her furlough at Piedmont ended and she picked up 14 hours a week at the airport.

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Credit…John Tully for The New York Times
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Credit…John Tully for The New York Times

She and her fiancé had been putting away money for their wedding, so they have a cushion. “But I do wonder what happens to people in my position who don’t have the money we saved for our wedding,” she said.

Just how many people juggle two or more part-time jobs or pick up a side gig like driving for Lyft in addition to a full-time job is fuzzy. Official figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that are based on surveys show that a tiny slice of workers — about 5 percent — fall into this group, but several economists say the measurement suffers from an outdated definition of what constitutes paid work and misleading assumptions about work schedules.

The bureau asks about work only in a specific reference week, for instance, which may not capture contract workers and freelancers with shifting schedules. Nor does it count self-employed individuals who do more than one job.

“What we have been discovering is that the B.L.S. numbers are just not telling the full story,” said Hye Jin Rho, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning research group in Washington, who recently completed a study of multiple job holders. The researchers found that as much as 16 percent of the American work force — more than 26 million people — depends on multiple jobs for income.

Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, an online platform for hiring freelancers, who also studies people with multiple jobs, argues that the total is even higher — that 35 percent of workers do some sort of freelancing over the course of a year. “Self-employment has always been a feature of the modern American economy,” he said, it just hasn’t been recognized by official measures or policies.

The difficulties facing these workers have multiplied during the pandemic.

The current political fight over whether to extend a $600 weekly jobless benefit supplement — which expires at the end of this month — overlooks the total financial toll that the pandemic has taken on households, some economists contend.

“What I think is lacking from the conversation about unemployment now is that you may not have lost your main job, but you have lost your secondary job and you can’t file an unemployment claim for it,” Ms. Rho said. “You’re suffering financially, but there’s no other way of making that up.”

Republicans in Congress have opposed extending the supplement because that extra money meant most recipients were getting more than they would have earned while working their regular job.

Several economists, though, have argued that the payments have kept the economy functioning by giving consumers money to spend. In most states, regular state benefits replace less than half of lost wages, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefit is half of that average state benefit. What’s more, there are at least 20 million people unemployed but only five million job openings.

Nick Pennell had just completed an eight-month contract as a color designer for footwear at Nike in Portland, Ore., on March 13. “That was the Friday when all hell broke loose,” because of surging coronavirus cases, Mr. Pennell said. On the following Monday, he was laid off from the part-time, minimum-wage pizzeria job that he used to supplement his income.

He filed for unemployment benefits for his pizzeria job, but couldn’t put in a claim for the much-better-paid stint at Nike since that had officially ended the day the state shut down. He applied under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and waited three months for his first check. It came in June, after the state’s National Guard was deployed to the employment department to help clear the backlog.

With help from his family and a small disability benefit from his time in the military, Mr. Pennell, 31, managed to pay his bills while he waited. “I kept doing job searches for freelance design work — nothing was working there,” he said. He is now working part time at the pizzeria again, cooking and delivering food.

As for his accumulated jobless benefits, he has stashed them in his bank account, a buffer for the next time works runs out.

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A Rush to Use Black Art Leaves the Artists Feeling Used

The streets of New York were crowded with protesters when Shantell Martin received an email from an ad agency last month.

M:United, a firm owned by the global advertising company McCann, wanted to know if Ms. Martin, a Black artist, would be interested in creating a mural about the Black Lives Matter movement on Microsoft’s boarded-up Fifth Avenue storefront. And could she do it, the email said, “while the protests are still relevant and the boards are still up, ideally no later than this coming Sunday?”

Several other Black artists received the same email. In an open letter to Microsoft and McCann, Ms. Martin and the other artists described the invitation as “both shocking and somehow predictable.” They also wrote that it “betrays a telling and dangerous opportunism.”

“In their rush to portray a public solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies risk reinscribing what got us all here: the instrumentalization and exploitation of Black labor, ideas and talent for what is ultimately their own benefit and safety,” the group wrote.

The efforts of major companies to publicly support the protests against racism and police brutality have rung hollow for some Black workers in creative fields.

Artists, models, designers, copywriters and others said they had been drafted to lend legitimacy to companies that fail to live up to principles of diversity and inclusion. They said they had been pigeonholed for roles in ad campaigns or penalized when they raised objections about efforts they felt were insensitive, and had been underpaid, or not given proper credit for their work.

After Ms. Martin posted on Instagram on June 6 about the mural request, several McCann employees told her that the ad agency had reached out to her and other artists despite some internal objections about how the project was being handled, she said in an interview. Both Chris Capossela, the chief marketing officer of Microsoft, and Harris Diamond, the chief executive of McCann, apologized publicly to Ms. Martin on Twitter.

The language used in the email to Ms. Martin “was flat out wrong,” Mr. Diamond wrote. Microsoft said in a statement that the message was “an unacceptable mistake” and that the company took “full accountability.”

A group of marketing professionals, Lexie Pérez, Julian Cole, Stephanie Vitacca and Davis Ballard, began tracking the flood of company statements of solidarity in an open Google Slides document that they released on June 5. They noted that companies often seemed to be “seeking participation trophies” and trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement with “empty and vague platitudes,” providing no concrete plans for change and ignoring complaints of inequality internally.

“This is the current issue of the day,” said Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University. “It has become almost standard for companies to jump in, because everyone expects them to have some kind of social presence explaining how they align on race.”

So-called protest art has appeared on the doors and boarded windows of upscale brands like Free People, 7 For All Mankind and Hugo Boss. Scores of companies participated in #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram last month, posting black squares on their feeds with captions expressing solidarity with the movement.

But consumers are increasingly sensitive to how companies express their positions. Twenty percent of U.S. adults surveyed in late June said they would stop buying from a company deemed to be acting hypocritically on the issues of police violence and racial injustice, the polling and market research firm Opinium said last week.

After the publishing giant Condé Nast and the website Refinery29 publicly backed the Black Lives Matter movement, they faced accusations of mistreating employees of color. Leaked grooming guidelines for store employees of the Australian fashion label Zimmerman, which recently denounced racism and quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu on its Instagram account, were found to discriminate against Black women who wear their hair naturally.

In a statement, Zimmerman said it condemned racism and was “determined to be part of meaningful and positive change in the global fashion industry.”

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former manager for the image-sharing web service Pinterest, said on Twitter that she and another Black woman had recently left the company after they were subjected to racist and sexist behavior. That behavior included negative feedback from a manager after Ms. Ozoma pushed back against the promotion of plantation weddings on the platform, she said.

The company said in a statement that it planned to diversify its board and commission an external review of employee pay.

Many creative workers are self-employed and are not protected by human resources departments or represented in corporate surveys. Many independent Black artists, like Ms. Martin, said they were frequently asked to provide input on diversity initiatives, but were not compensated as consultants.

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Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Last month, the fashion designer Dionne Clouser saw a design from her Dionne by T brand replicated on the Instagram account of the fast fashion label Pretty Little Thing. She had seen her work borrowed without credit before, but this time, the theft seemed especially brazen. Just a few months earlier, Ms. Clouser said she had turned down an offer to be a brand ambassador for Pretty Little Thing.

But as a small-business owner with limited funds, she opted not to take on the far larger company in court. Pretty Little Thing declined to comment.

“I’ve gotten used to it, but it leaves a bad taste for me,” Ms. Clouser said.

Lydia Okello, a Black queer influencer who uses the pronouns they and them, said they also felt powerless pushing back against large fashion companies. Mx. Okello received an offer from Anthropologie of a free outfit if they published content on Instagram and provided several images to the company for a social media campaign pegged to Pride month. Mx. Okello responded with their standard rates, but said the producer who had reached out repeatedly evaded their request for payment — treatment that they did not believe a straight, white influencer would have experienced.

URBN, the company that owns Anthropologie, said in a statement that it “handled our overture to Lydia poorly.” The company said it was evaluating how to make future interactions with influencers more transparent and respectful while clarifying guidelines for compensation.

“I’ve worked as a Black creative all my adult life, and I’ve noticed that there’s often an assumption that you should feel flattered that this large company is reaching out to you, that it has noticed you, and that reflects a greater cultural narrative that the creative work of marginalized groups is less valuable,” Mx. Okello said. “It’s like, ‘Just shut up and take it, or we’ll find someone else.’”

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Credit…Hannah Rebecca Ackeral

Exacerbating the problem is a lack of diversity in leadership roles in the industry. Ad agencies and marketing executives from companies such as General Motors, McDonald’s and Walmart vowed in a public letter to address the issue.

But the messages of solidarity, while encouraging, “ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences,” according to a letter signed by hundreds of Black advertising employees in June.

“You have extremely limited people of color in positions of authority at the same time that the marketplace itself is becoming much more diverse,” said Judy Foster Davis, a marketing professor at Eastern Michigan University, who has studied the troubled history of brands like Aunt Jemima. “Then, over the past few years, you see all sorts of marketing blunders.”

Recent gaffes have included racist ads and images from Volkswagen, Dove and H&M.

Saturday Morning, a creative collective focused on racial justice, which has worked with companies like Procter & Gamble and Spotify, issued a call last month for brands to “take bold steps.”

“In order for us to find true equality, there has to be sacrifice and not just sympathy,” said the group of Black advertising executives behind Saturday Morning. “Otherwise this moment will fade away like so many before it.”

Elizabeth Paton contributed reporting.

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The New Model Media Star Is Famous Only to You

Back in March, I was trying to persuade my dad to stop taking the subway to work in Manhattan and join me upstate. So I paid $75 to Leonard Marshall, a retired New York Giants defensive lineman we both loved in the 1980s, to send the message.

“I put a few guys in the hospital, Bob,” he told my father solemnly. “I need you to play defense in these crazy times.”

It worked, and my father hasn’t been to Times Square since.

I had reached Mr. Marshall through Cameo, a service that allows you to buy short videos from minor celebrities. I also used Cameo to purchase a pep talk from an Olympic triathlete for my daughter ($15), an ingratiating monologue for my new boss from a former Boston Red Sox manager ($100) and a failed Twitter joke delivered by the action star Chuck Norris ($229.99).

Cameo is blowing up in this strange season because “every celebrity is really a gig economy worker,” says Steven Galanis, the company’s chief executive. They’re stuck at home, bored and sometimes hard up for cash as performances, productions and sporting events dry up. The company’s weekly bookings have grown to 70,000 from about 9,000 in early January, it says, and Mr. Galanis said he anticipated bringing in more than $100 million in bookings this year, of which the company keeps 25 percent. The company expects to sell its millionth video this week.

Cameo is, on its face, a service that allows housebound idiots to blow money on silly shout-outs. Seen another way, however, it’s a new model media company, sitting at the intersection of a set of powerful trends that are accelerating in the present crisis. There’s the rise of simple, digital direct payments, which are replacing advertising as the major source of media revenue. There’s the growing power of talent, trickling down from superstars to half-forgotten former athletes and even working journalists. And there’s the old promise of the earlier internet that you could make a living if you just had “1,000 true fans” — a promise that advertising-based businesses from blogs to YouTube channels failed to deliver.

In fact, in this new economy, some people may be able to make a living off just 100 true fans, as Li Jin, a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argued recently. Ms. Jin calls this new landscape the “passion economy.” She argues that apps like Uber and DoorDash are built to erase the differences between individual drivers or food delivery people. But similar tools, she says, can be used to “monetize individuality.”

Many of these trends are well developed in China, but here in the United States the passion economy covers everyone from the small merchants using Shopify to the drawing instructors of the education platform Udemy.

In the mainstream heart of the media business, both artists and writers are moving quickly to find new business models as huge swaths of the media business have been wounded or shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. At Patreon, the first and broadest of the big services connecting writers and performers to audiences, the co-founder Jack Conte said he was delighted recently to see one of his favorite bands, Of Montreal, release music on the platform.

“Traditional music coming to Patreon is a watershed moment,” he said.

In the news business, journalists are carving out new paths on Substack, a newsletter service. Its most successful individual voices — like the China expert Bill Bishop and the liberal political writer Judd Legum — are earning well into six figures annually for sending regular newsletters to subscribers, though no individual has crossed the million-dollar mark, the company said.

For some writers, Substack is a way to get their work out of the shadow of an institution. Emily Atkin felt that need intensely when a climate forum she organized last year for presidential candidates, while she was a writer for The New Republic, collapsed amid a scandal over an unrelated column about Mayor Pete Buttigieg that appeared in that publication.

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Credit…Rozette Rago

Now, said Ms. Atkin, who writes a confrontational climate newsletter called Heated, she’s “shockingly hopeful.”

“I don’t have any layoffs happening at my newsletter, so I’m doing better than most of the news industry,” she said.

Ms. Atkin, who is 11th on Substack’s ranking of paid newsletters and was more willing than Mr. Bishop or Mr. Legum to talk in detail about the business, said she was on track to gross $175,000 this year from more than 2,500 subscribers. Out of that, she’ll pay for health care, a research assistant and a 10 percent fee to Substack, among other costs.

For others, Substack is a way to carry on with work they’re passionate about when a job goes away, as Lindsay Gibbs found when the liberal news site ThinkProgress shut down last year and took her beat on sexism in sports with it.

Now, she has more than 1,000 subscribers to Power Plays, paying as much as $72 a year.

Both of them started with $20,000 advances from the platform.

“The audience connecting directly with you and paying directly is a revolutionary change to the business model,” Substack’s chief executive, Chris Best, told me.

It’s hard to imagine even the most successful writers, like Mr. Bishop and Ms. Atkin, posing a major threat to the titans of media anytime soon, especially as a few big institutions — whether in news or streaming video — dominate each market. But the two writers’ path to success points to the reality that the biggest threat to those institutions may come from their talented employees.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.