Driving for Uber may not rule out unemployment benefits, Pa. court says

 (Jeff Chiu/AP file photo)

(Jeff Chiu/AP file photo)

A Pennsylvania appeals court has ruled that driving for Uber or Lyft doesn’t automatically jeopardize unemployment benefits tied to a former job.

Wednesday’s decision is considered a victory for low-wage workers, particularly those who turn to the “gig economy” to support themselves after losing full-time employment.

The ruling came two years after the state denied Donald Lowman’s request for unemployment benefits.

In 2015, Lowman lost his job as a behavioral health specialist at Resources for Human Development, a nonprofit in Philadelphia. While he waited to hear back from the state, he signed up to be a driver for Uber, the popular ride-hailing company.

Claiming Lowman was now self-employed, the state’s unemployment board disqualified him.

The board argued Lowman spent “most days” driving for Uber, made roughly $350 a week, and was “not just trying to earn some extra money on the side,” according to court documents.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court disagreed, saying Lowman never tried to establish his own business.

“Which is important because sometimes people don’t earn that much in a given week depending on their driving for Uber and Lyft, and they can still get the supplemental benefits. And sometimes something happens, and they can no longer drive,” said Julia Simon-Mishel, a staff attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which argued the case.

Uber, whose drivers are considered independent contractors, declined to comment on the ruling.

A spokeswoman with the state’s Department of Labor and Industry also declined comment, saying the department doesn’t discuss litigation.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.