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Drivers, unions sue to strike down California's new rules for gig workers

Drivers, unions sue to strike down California's new rules for gig workers
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A collection of rideshare drivers and labor unions filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn a recent California ballot measure that enshrined the non-employee status of gig workers, arguing the new law is unconstitutional.

The suit, filed in California Supreme Court, argues that Proposition 22 puts illegal constraints on the ability of state lawmakers to empower drivers to organize.

The suit alleges that the ballot measure — which was approved in November by a wide margin after gig economy companies spent over $200 million to back it — illegally excludes rideshare drivers from the state workers’ compensation program.

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It also argues that the ballot initiative, which took effect in mid-December, unconstitutionally defines what comprises an amendment to the measure.

Veena Dubal, an associate professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, called that section of the proposition “hugely problematic,” warning that it “effectively prevents the California legislature from passing laws to amend it — and really to legislate in the arena of app-deployed workers’ rights more generally.”

“This is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-worker,” she told The Hill. “It also may very well violate the California constitution.”

The initiative was in response to a state law that sets standards for when workers can be considered independent contractors, the classification preferred by Uber and Lyft for their drivers. The ballot measure functionally exempts gig work companies from having to provide workers basic protections like a minimum wage, health care and the right to organize.

In the lead-up to Election Day, opponents spent about $20 million in opposition to Proposition 22.

The three drivers and one customer who filed Tuesday's lawsuit are being supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the SEIU's California State Council.

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“We stand with the hard-working drivers whose exploitation by Uber and Lyft will only deepen as a direct result of Prop 22,” California Labor Federation chief officer Art Pulaski said in a statement.

“This unconstitutional law, which gig companies bought with hundreds of millions of dollars in political spending, is an affront to the fundamental protections and rights all workers deserve and should be expeditiously struck down by the courts.”

Lyft and Uber referred The Hill to Protect App Based Jobs & Services, the group formally known as Yes on 22.

“Nearly 10 million California voters -- including the vast majority of app-based drivers -- passed Prop 22 to protect driver independence, while providing historic new protections," the group said in a statement through California Uber driver Jim Pyatt. "Meritless lawsuits that seek to undermine the clear democratic will of the people do not stand up to scrutiny in the courts.”

The plaintiffs are seeking expedited review of the case because the law will have “profound and immediate effects” on rideshare drivers and their families.

“I think they made a very strong argument that this is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed right away,” said labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has represented drivers in other cases challenging worker classification.

“I know that if this started in the lower courts it would take forever to work its way through the system.”

The ballot measure promises drivers 120 percent of the minimum wage and a health care contribution equivalent to either 50 percent or 100 percent of the employer-provided average under the Affordable Care Act. Benefits will be calculated based on a driver’s active time, meaning compensation would still be below what they would have received under the state law.

“Every day, rideshare drivers like me struggle to make ends meet because companies like Uber and Lyft prioritize corporate profits over our wellbeing,” plaintiff Saori Okawa said.

There is some precedent for overturning ballot measures over unconstitutionality in California, but most of those were achieved through federal involvement or subsequent ballot measures.

Updated at 3:51 p.m.