Uber Tries Divide-Conquer to Fight Drivers’ Bid for Benefits

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The Uber Technologies Inc. application runs on an Apple Inc. iPhone during an Uber ride in Washington, D.C., on April 8, 2015.

The Uber Technologies Inc. application runs on an Apple Inc. iPhone during an Uber ride in Washington, D.C., on April 8, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

There’s no such thing as a typical Uber driver, the company said in a bid to fend off a group lawsuit seeking to elevate its staff from independent contractors to employees.

Uber Technologies Inc. is fighting a threat to its business model from drivers who want a guaranteed a minimum wage, compensation for mileage and the right to pay into Social Security. How Uber’s case plays out may help define the future of Internet-enabled companies that depend on casual labor to provide services from home cleaning to food delivery, and even helicopter trips.

The San Francisco on-demand ride sharing company is relying on the same lawyer who helped Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2011 defeat a class-action case brought on behalf of a million female workers. Just as attorney Ted Boutrous argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the retailer’s case, he says it’s bogus to assume the employment conditions for more than 100,000 Uber drivers in California are governed by common corporate practices.

Uber’s argument is at odds with a ruling by California’s labor commissioner last month that a driver who connects with customers through the company’s app must be considered an employee. Uber, along with rivals Lyft Inc. and Sidecar Technologies Inc., uses a model throughout the U.S. that provides drivers with mobile-phone applications to pick up riders.

To respond to the handful of drivers who filed their lawsuit two years ago, Uber said in a court filing Thursday it has collected testimonials from 400 drivers who agreed to different ground rules and expectations when they signed up for the ride-hailing service. Some of the drivers are quoted in court filings saying they have no interest in being treated as employees -- and might even get fired if bosses at their other jobs found out they were moonlighting for Uber.

‘No Typical Driver’

“The reality is that drivers use Uber on their own terms: they control their use of the app,” Uber said in a statement. “It’s why there’s no typical driver.”

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a lawyer for the drivers, said it wasn’t surprising that Uber provided statements from several hundred drivers who expressed support for the company.

“More than a thousand drivers have contacted our firm who are very unhappy with how Uber has treated them and they feel taken advantage of them,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

The labor commissioner’s office said Uber and its California affiliate “hold themselves out as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation. The reality, however, is that defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation.”

Uber has said it’s appealing the decision.

While the state agency’s finding applies to only one driver, it may be influential in how courts rule on the contractor-employee dispute in cases affecting drivers statewide.

A hearing on the Uber drivers’ bid for class-action status is set for Aug. 6 before U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco. Lyft faces a similar lawsuit before a different judge in the same court.

Both judges rejected early requests by the companies to dismiss the complaints, saying the legal questions would need to be resolved at jury trials. Class-action cases allow plaintiffs to pool resources and give them more leverage to negotiate settlements.

The cases are O’Connor v. Uber Technologies Inc., 13-cv-03826, and Cotter v. Lyft Inc., 13-cv-04065, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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