Such lawsuits have online startups that depend on the labor of local independent contractors frightened: their business models count on armies of independent contractors. Some companies, notably the delivery service Instacart, have brought part of their workforce on board as employees. Instacart hired only its order-pickers, who only work part-time hours to avoid the requirement to provide health insurance, and notably did not hire delivery drivers, leaving them as independent contractors responsible for their own vehicle costs.
The judge’s ruling [PDF] in this case certifies the lawsuit as a class action where all current and former Uber drivers in California are theoretically plaintiffs. Hundreds of Uber drivers filed declarations with the court explaining that they prefer to stay as independent contractors, appreciating the freedom to make their own hours and to go off-duty by simply turning off the app.
The judge didn’t find this convincing, pointing out that Uber never claimed that the drivers who gave declarations were a random sample of all drivers: for all the court knew, Uber only solicited statements from drivers who are already vocal about wanting to stay as independent contractors. “Nothing suggests, for instance, that [the drivers] were told that were the Plaintiffs to prevail, they might be entitled to thousands of dollars,” the judge wrote. Without giving drivers that information first, it’s impossible to know.
Six out of the hundreds of drivers quoted in the document later said that they didn’t understand the practical differences between being a contractor and being an employee, and they submitted updated statements to the court saying that Uber misled them about the benefits that employees receive, such as having their employer pay part of their Social Security taxes, and having vehicle costs reimbursed. The plaintiffs’ attorneys helped clear things up for these drivers, and said that even more would have come forward, but they didn’t want to risk having their accounts deactivated for speaking out against Uber.
The class action represents as many as 160,000 current and former Uber drivers in California, and seeks back wages and expenses. The jury trial will happen sometime in 2016.