Judge issues injunction against Uber and Lyft, says drivers are employees – CNET

Uber Driver Protests

Thousands of ride-hail drivers in California have long fought to be classified as employees.

James Martin/CNET

In a blow to Uber and Lyft, a California judge ruled Monday that the ride-hailing companies must start classifying their drivers as employees in the state. This is something the companies have fought for years because it would mean millions of dollars in added costs and a complete overhaul of their business models.

Judge Ethan Schulman of the San Francisco Superior Court wrote in his decision that the injunction won't be enforced for 10 days, so as to give Uber and Lyft a chance to appeal -- something both companies said they'll do.

"We'll immediately appeal this ruling and continue to fight for [drivers'] independence," a Lyft spokesman said. An Uber spokesman said, "We plan to file an immediate emergency appeal on behalf of California drivers." 

The injunction is part of a lawsuit brought against the two companies in May by the state of California and in conjunction with the city attorneys from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The suit alleges the ride-hailing companies have violated state law AB 5 and "exploited hundreds of thousands of California workers" by classifying their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

"This is a resounding victory for thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers who are working hard -- and, in this pandemic, incurring risk every day -- to provide for their families," Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statemet. "Of course our fight is not over and we will vigorously pursue this litigation until these workers have the permanent protection they deserve." 

The debate over driver rights has raged for years. Uber and Lyft classify their drivers as independent contractors, which means the workers pay for expenses, such as gas, car maintenance and insurance. Drivers also don't have benefits like health care and sick leave. Over the last year, as California and other states have pushed for more benefits and rights for drivers, the move toward reclassifying drivers as employees has come center stage.

Last Thursday, Judge Schulman heard from Uber and Lyft's attorneys, as well as a representative for the state. At that time, it wasn't clear how he was going to rule and he appeared to be grappling with how his decision would effect drivers and passengers throughout the state.

Uber and Lyft's lawyers said that while drivers are crucial to ride-hailing, they're not core to the companies' businesses. Uber's lawyer said the company is a technology platform, not a transportation provider.

In his decision on Monday, Schulman disagreed.

"To state the obvious, drivers are central, not tangential, to Uber and Lyft's entire ride-hailing business," he wrote.

Uber and Lyft have decided to take the issue to California voters in November. In a ballot measure sponsored by the companies, along with Doordash, Instacart and Postmates, the companies are seeking a carve out to AB 5. In all, the companies have put $110 million behind the measure, called Proposition 22.

"When over 3 million Californians are without a job, our elected leaders should be focused on creating work," the Uber spokesman said. "Not trying to shut down an entire industry during an economic depression."

Uber said that because it's appealing Judge Schulman's decision, it doesn't think California drivers' classification status will change imminently. For some drivers, however, the change can't come soon enough.

"Today's ruling affirms what California drivers have long known to be true: workers like me have rights and Uber and Lyft must respect those rights," Mike Robinson, a Lyft driver and member of driver advocacy group Mobile Workers Alliance, said in a statement. "These companies will do and spend whatever it takes to avoid protecting drivers or following the law -- even if it means pouring tens of millions of dollars into a ballot initiative to buy themselves special treatment. We hope that today's ruling will serve as a potent reminder to California voters that Uber and Lyft are not above the law."

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