California’s Proposition 22 is an initiative sponsored by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig work platforms. It would exempt app-based ride-hailing companies and food delivery companies from a new state law that requires them to classify drivers as employees instead of independent contractors.
Gig companies have poured nearly $200 million into the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign, making it the most expensive ballot initiative in state history. They’ve threatened to leave California or dramatically raise prices if it doesn’t pass, and a loss could embolden other states to insist that app companies hire their drivers.
I spoke with Sam Harnett, a reporter for KQED in San Francisco. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Sam Harnett: Gig companies are saying, “If this doesn’t pass, we’re going to have to potentially suspend service in California.” And if it passes, Uber, Lyft and the rest of the gig companies will be able to continue operating the way that they were operating before. Their workers would be contractors, [which] means they wouldn’t have basic employee protections like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation. And the way this proposition is written, that will be pretty much locked in. There’s this seven-eighths provision, which means it would take seven-eighths of the Senate and Assembly in California to make any changes to this proposition. And local jurisdictions, cities and counties couldn’t make any changes to give gig workers more benefits.
Molly Wood: Do these same restrictions, this un-overturnability, does that apply even if the companies are forced to classify their workers as employees?
Harnett: Well, if Proposition 22 doesn’t pass, workers will become employees, but these gig companies still have billions of dollars, and they’re going to keep fighting this tooth and claw. I mean, they see this as an existential threat to their business model. So on the one side, if Prop 22 passes, the gig model looks pretty solid. I mean, maybe something federally could lead to a change. Maybe there could be a lawsuit over something procedurally in the proposition, like maybe that seven-eighths provision I mentioned. But it’s going to be there. On the flip side, if Proposition 22 doesn’t pass, you can expect another salvo from the gig companies pretty quickly.
Wood: This is a California ballot proposition, but I wonder what implications could it have if it doesn’t pass for the gig economy nationally?
Harnett: Oh, huge. I think everybody, nationally and internationally, is looking at this case. Over the last couple years, you’ve seen the California Supreme Court, the California legislature and now the attorney general go after these companies and tell them, “Your workers are actually employees, and they need basic protections.” And if the gig companies are successful in using the ballot box to defy the three branches of government and maintain their business model, I think a lot of other states, and a lot of other countries, are going to see that as, “Well, the gig companies, they won.”
Wood: And if they don’t win, would that embolden maybe states and localities who have wanted to do something about this model to pass their own laws?
Harnett: Absolutely. In Massachusetts, they’re moving, pushing back on gig companies in a similar way. And in other states, they’re now trying to follow California’s path. And I think a victory for labor if Prop. 22 doesn’t pass, I think will ripple. And again, the companies would have to then classify workers as employees, and the rubber is going to hit the road, and we’re going to see how that all plays out.
Wood: These companies, of course, have poured a ton of money into this campaign, and they’re using their platform for that campaigning. Can you talk about some of the tactics that they’re using when you’re actually using apps like Postmates and Uber and Lyft these days?
Harnett: They got $185 million behind this, but they also have apps in hundreds of thousands or millions of voters’ pockets. So if you’ve taken Uber or Lyft, you’ve probably gotten a pop-up that has had messaging about Proposition 22. And if you work for these apps, you’re also getting pop-ups and material inside the apps urging you to vote yes on Prop 22. DoorDash has sent several million pro-Prop. 22 delivery bags for restaurants, which then the DoorDash workers have to carry the food to customers in those bags. And then Uber has a pop-up for riders that tells riders that their drivers support Prop. 22 and to talk to drivers about it. So these companies are leveraging their apps and they’re leveraging their workers in a way that has never been seen before in an election fight.
Wood: In your reporting, what are you hearing from drivers? Do you have a sense of how they’re feeling about all this?
Harnett: I’ve been covering this for five or six years, and drivers actually have always told me pretty much the same thing, which is they want to be their own boss, they want to be independent, they want to be flexible, but they also want basic protections, or at least enough money to get those basic protections. So a lot of drivers, they get these surveys that ask them if they want to be contractors, and it’s kind of confusing, because they do want to be contractors, but it’s kind of an aspirational desire to be contractors. They want to be contractors who actually make enough money to pay for health insurance, who actually make enough money to work when they want to work. And right now, what drivers are saying is that the rates haven’t been good in years, but they’ve been declining since the beginning. They’re frustrated. So I’d say workers want autonomy, independence and flexibility, but they want some basic protections.
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The Guardian calls Proposition 22 an initiative with “the fate of an industry” riding on it. Even more than that, it’s an attempt to figure out a new framework for labor and hiring in an economy where apps like this do employ so many workers. And in some ways, like Sam Harnett said, a lot of drivers, analysts and labor experts think there should be a third way, something in between very regimented 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. employment that at least comes with benefits, and total freedom and flexibility — to die with no health insurance or miss rent if you get sick.
The delivery and ride-hail companies are positioning Proposition 22 as sort of a third way since the drivers would stay independent contractors but get some small benefits, like accident insurance and stipends to use for health insurance that go up the more hours someone drives. And, of course, it’s hard to forget that this proposition is a total end-run around a state law that the companies in question just decided to ignore. Nevertheless, opinions on Proposition 22 are fairly evenly split, even though many Californians are already voting.
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