Uber Driver Is Employee, CA Labor Commission Rules

A San Francisco Uber driver was an employee of the ride-hail company, not an independent contractor, the California Labor Commission has ruled. 

A court ruling filed yesterday reveals that the labor commission found that Barbara Ann Berwick was an employee of Uber when she drove for the company for two months in 2014, and is therefore entitled to reimbursement for her expenses. Uber claimed that Berwick, like all of its drivers, was an independent contractor. The full filing is embedded below. 

The proper classification of workers using app-based platforms is a key question for the growing on-demand economy. As SF Weekly reported in “Codependent Contracting,” companies like Uber, Lyft, Handy, and Postmates claim that they are merely technology companies and that the people who use their platforms to work — drivers, cleaners, delivery couriers — are independent contractors. Independent contractors are not eligible for basic employment protections like minimum wage laws, overtime, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation insurance, and the right to organize a union. 

That contention has been challenged by a number of class action lawsuits brought by attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan arguing that the workers are indeed employees and should be protected by employment law. In an interview with SF Weekly, Liss Riordan cited the 1989 court case, S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. vs. Department of Industrial Relations, as precedent for why Uber and Lyft drivers should be deemed employees. That case involved a pickle farm and the farm workers who picked the crop:

The grower claimed that the farmworkers were independent contractors because, “They manage their own labor, share the profit or loss from the crop, and agree in writing that they are not employees.” The court found against that argument: “[The grower] simply chooses to accomplish one integrated step in the production of one such crop by means of worker incentives rather than direct supervision…. In no practical sense are the 'sharefarmers' entrepreneurs operating independent businesses for their own accounts.”

In yesterday's ruling, the Labor Commission cited the Borello decision, writing:

Plaintiff's work was integral to Defendants' business. Defendants are in business to provide transportation services to passengers. Plaintiff did the actual transporting of those passengers. Without drivers such as Plaintiff, Defendant's business would not exist.

Defendants hold themselves out as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation. The reality, however, is that the Defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation.

In this particular case, the court ruled that the plaintiff is entitled to $4,152.20 in reimbursement for the expenses she accrued driving for Uber. That may be a drop in the bucket for the multi-billion dollar company, but it could be a harbinger of tougher times to come for a company completely dependent on independent contracting. 

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