California’s top prosecutor has taken his most aggressive step yet in his attempt to force Uber and other gig economy companies to treat their workers as employees.
The state attorney-general Xavier Becerra, backed by city attorneys in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, on Wednesday filed a request for a preliminary injunction in their lawsuit against the gig companies.
If granted, it would mean the companies must reclassify their workers in a matter of weeks.
The motion will be discussed at a hearing due to take place on August 6.
The request came as about 50 Uber drivers in San Francisco blocked the street outside the home of the company’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, demanding employee benefits and better provisions for protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve got a 90-year-old mother and a wife who has cancer,” said Vernon, a 73-year-old driver, who attended the protest. “I need money.”
Drivers said the impact of Covid-19 had pushed them to the financial brink, unable to meet rent or mortgage obligations. Organisers said recent pledges by Mr Khosrowshahi to support the Black Lives Matters movement were disingenuous, given so many of the company’s drivers, many of them from minority backgrounds, were not being treated “with dignity and respect”.
“I’ve come here to protest an injustice,” said Alex, 56. “This company has become superiorly rich on the hands of workers.”
The dramatic drop in ride-sharing due to coronavirus lockdowns has brought the issue of gig workers’ rights to the very forefront of Californian politics, where most of the largest companies are based.
A new law, California Assembly Bill 5, or AB5, came into force at the beginning of the year. It codified a Supreme Court ruling that set out criteria for treating workers as employees rather than independent contractors. The law is now being used to take the gig economy companies to court.
Uber warned an injunction would immediately put more than 150,000 of its drivers in California out of work, and would result in price increases of between 25 per cent and 111 per cent, with less densely populated areas most affected.
“The vast majority of drivers want to work independently,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We’ve already made significant changes to our app to ensure that remains the case under California law. When over 3m Californians are without a job, our elected leaders should be focused on creating work, not trying to shut down an entire industry.”
Lyft, Uber’s biggest competitor in the US, said: “If the courts were to grant the attorney-general’s request, it would have a devastating effect on millions of Californians at the worst possible time.”
It added: “We believe the courts should let the voters decide.”
Uber, Lyft and a handful of similar companies have thrown more than $100m behind a proposed a new ballot measure, to be voted on in November, that would effectively make workers for app-based services exempt from AB5. The coalition maintains their alternative measure would provide workers some protections, such as a minimum earnings level.