Andrew Cuomo

Cuomo supports e-bike legalization, gig worker protections

Net neutrality and an investment in Syracuse tech sector also mentioned in the governor’s 2021 budget address.

Governor Cuomo presented his fiscal year 2021 budget on Tuesday.

Governor Cuomo presented his fiscal year 2021 budget on Tuesday. Darren McGee/Office of Governor M. Cuomo

Advocates for legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters in New York ended 2019 on a sour note, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a popular bill that would do just that. But on Tuesday those advocates got confirmation from the governor that their efforts may succeed in the new year.

Cuomo detailed a proposal to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters during his budget address Tuesday, one of several tech-related proposals included in his fiscal year 2021 budget that signal a willingness to adapt New York’s rules and regulations as technology transforms the streets, workforce and more. In addition to promising to legalize e-bikes, Cuomo also proposed a state task force to study the issue of classifying gig workers as employees – a debate that is ramping up across the country.

The governor’s e-bikes proposal would allow localities to choose on their own how to regulate the increasingly popular devices – which is essentially what the vetoed bill sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic that passed by a wide margin last session would have done. When vetoing Ramos and Rozic’s bill late last year, Cuomo said he supported the idea of legalizing e-bikes, but called for safety measures including a helmet requirement and mandatory front and rear lights. NY1 reported last week that Cuomo reached an agreement with advocates to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters, with the stipulation that helmets would be required for e-bikes that travel over 25 mph.

Cuomo did not address any details about how legalization would work in his speech, or whether other safety requirements would be included. But a statement released by Rozic on Tuesday afternoon said that legalization will include that helmet requirement for e-bikes over 25 mph, as well as a helmet requirement for 16 to 18-year-olds riding e-scooters. Penalties for driving while intoxicated would also be enforced in the event of a collision. Representatives for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment about those or any other provisions.

Supporters of legalization hailed the issue’s inclusion in the budget as a victory. “Although the governor had the opportunity to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters much earlier, his agreement with the advocates is a clear win for workers across New York and for the future of sustainable mobility,” Ramos said in an emailed statement on Tuesday, emphasizing the argument that legalization would have an outsized impact on delivery workers for whom an e-bike is often a job requirement.

Ramos wasn’t alone in expressing regret that e-bikes and e-scooters weren’t passed as legislation. “I think it goes without saying that it probably should have been passed as legislation that was introduced by Assemblymember Rozic and Sen. Ramos earlier last year, and not as an obscure line item in the budget,” said Emil Skandul, technologist and founder of the digital innovation firm, Capitol Foundry. “It certainly creates a lot more transparency to introduce it as legislation. But regardless, this is a win for alternative transportation advocates and for New Yorkers.”

Alternative transportation advocates also counted the proposal introduced by Cuomo Tuesday as a win, saying that requiring helmets only for faster e-bikes is a workable compromise – though the governor’s office has yet to confirm details of the proposal, including any helmet requirements. "It's very good that there are no helmet requirements for Class 1 and Class 2 (e-bikes) which can go up to 20 miles per hour,” said Marco Conner, co-deputy director of the transportation advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

E-bike legalization is not the only tech issue covered in Cuomo’s budget address. In his State of the State address earlier this month, the governor highlighted several proposals that will have implications on both tech companies and how New Yorkers interact with technology. Many of those were also included in the 2021 budget, which mentioned a $9 million investment in New York’s testing site upstate, building a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education and training center in Syracuse, and establishing net neutrality principles in New York. 

One of the more controversial proposals deals with New York’s gig economy workers, and Cuomo seemed to pick a side in that debate during his State of the State address, saying that some gig workers are exploited as independent contractors and tweeting that gig workers need to be “appropriately classified.” 

California recently enacted a bill that reclassifies many gig workers as employees – rather than independent contractors – affording them labor protections, and stirring up resistance from tech companies for whom they work, like Uber and DoorDash. Since last summer, similar efforts to redesign how gig workers fit into New York’s workforce have gained steam, with some legislators proposing bills like California’s, and others advocating for a more middle-of-the-road approach that would offer portable benefits to gig workers without classifying them as employees.

Despite being hailed by some as worker-friendly, California’s law has received considerable criticism for taking too broad an approach to rein in gig economy companies. Freelance writers have sued over the law, arguing that it harms their ability to get work as freelancers because if news outlets publish more than 35 pieces of work in a year by a freelancer, that worker must be classified as an employee.

On Tuesday, Cuomo didn’t pick a side in the debate over how best to protect gig workers, but proposed a “task force of stakeholders” – presumably those working for tech companies like Uber as well as workers and labor advocates – to tackle the issue and come up with solutions by May 1st of this year. “There is no doubt that there is abuse of employees,” Cuomo said during his speech. “Let’s come up with a program working together that ends the abuse but grows the economy, and does both together.” The budget book also noted that if the issue doesn’t get resolved, then the Department of Labor would be authorized to enact regulations to protect workers.

Broadly, these proposals – both the ones explicitly referenced by Cuomo on Tuesday and ones unveiled earlier – tackle a few of the big tech issues that not only New York, but the rest of the country is grappling with, including efforts to maintain net neutrality protections as the federal government turns against them, and the classification of gig workers. “This is most likely going to be the most important issue of 2020 for New York state,” Skandul said of the latter. “New York has an opportunity here to correct the flaws in California’s bill.