The California Labor Commissioner recently ruled that former Uber driver Barbara Berwick was an employee of the ride share company, not an independent contractor, and therefore was owed more than $4000 in job-related expenses that Berwick paid while working for Uber.
While the ruling applies only to Berwick, the commissioner’s ruling could have far-reaching consequences for Uber and other employers who classify workers as independent contractors in order to lower their labor costs.
According to Bloomberg, the commissioner’s ruling, “strikes at the heart of (Uber’s) business model, (which) like other ‘sharing economy’ startups has built a business around a flexible car fleet piloted by people it contends are independent contractors. If Uber’s drivers were treated as employees, the company would be required to guarantee them a minimum wage, compensate them for mileage, and pay into social security.”
After the ruling was issued, Uber announced that it would appeal the commissioner’s ruling in court.
In announcing its decision to appeal, Uber touted its labor policies, which a company spokesperson said gives workers “complete flexibility and control.”
But some Uber drivers have a somewhat different view of Uber’s flexible labor policies. “Uber’s like an exploiting pimp,” said Arman, an Uber driver in Los Angeles to Avi Asher-Schapiro writing for Jacobin. “Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like shit — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to fuck off.”
Other Uber drivers critical of the company’s labor policies are a bit less caustic than Arman, who asked Asher-Schapiro not to use his last name. For them, the word that best describes Uber’s labor policies isn’t “flexible;” instead it’s “indifferent.”
Some Uber drivers have responded to the company’s indifference by organizing. One of the new app drivers organizations in Southern California is called the California App-based Drivers Association (CADA).
“(Uber’s) manifest indifference to the plight of its drivers . . . led drivers to form CADA,” said Lotfi Ben Yeder, a member of CADA’s leadership council.
Among other things, members of CADA complain that Uber doesn’t provide them with enough protection on the job.
One female driver who didn’t want her name used said that when a customer sexually harassed her, she wanted to end the ride but didn’t do so because she feared that the customer might give her a negative approval rating, which could lead to her being fired.
When she reported the harassment to Uber management, she said that she received no meaningful response.
Other drivers who belong to CADA complained that Uber’s approval rating system is arbitrary and not transparent. If drivers receive a bad rating,which could lead to their firing, there’s no way for them to appeal.
In addition, drivers are responsible for paying for gas, tolls, insurance, repairs, and other work-related expenses and receive no company benefits including health insurance. The company also doesn’t make social security or unemployment insurance contributions on behalf of the driver.
CADA has affiliated with Teamsters Local 986, which issued a statement after CADA was formed in 2014.
“We look forward to working with CADA to help the drivers win fairness in the workplace and help them get recognized for the work they do making Uber and other app-based companies successful,” said Chris Griswold, secretary-treasurer of Local 986. “These app-based companies need to start treating their professional drivers with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”
Like their counterparts in Southern California, Uber and other app-based drivers in Seattle have formed their own organization–the App-based Drivers Association (ABDA).
Members of ABDA also complain about Uber’s non-transparent approval rating system and are seeking a voice to make it more fair.
“The association will give us a voice, more control over our working conditions, and an opportunity to be heard,” said Ydediya Seifu, a member of ABDA’s leadership council.
ABDA has affiliated with Teamsters Local 117.
The Berwick ruling by the California Labor Commissioner affects only one former driver, but the commissioner’s ruling does not bode well for Uber, which is facing challenges from other drivers, who contend that they are employees, not independent contractors.
The Berwick ruling dismisses Uber’s claim that it’s nothing more than a neutral technological platform that connects passengers with owner operator drivers.
According to the commissioner’s findings, “(Uber) controls the tools the drivers use,” closely monitors their approval ranking, and “terminates their access to the application (in other words, fires them) if the ratings fall below a specific level (4.6 stars).”