Steven Hill in Boston Review (Photo: Julian GONG Min):
The employment status of its drivers has become the most prominent of the many controversies dogging Uber. (The most recent controversy pits Uber vs. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has proposed capping the number of ridesharing cars while New York figures out how to deal with worsening traffic congestion.) CEO Travis Kalanick insists that his company is merely a technology platform facilitating rides between passengers and drivers, not an employer of drivers. “Are we American Airlines or are we Expedia?” asked Kalanick, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. He maintains they are more like Expedia, merely a go-between connecting buyers and sellers.
Complicating matters, the legal standard for what makes an individual an employee rather than a contractor is vague. It has to do with how much the worker is actually “independent,” and how much the employer dictates. The lack of clarity has led to complex situations, some of them tragic, in which the employer shirks responsibility. When an Uber driver hit and killed six-year-old Sofia Liu, and badly injured her mother and brother as they were traversing a crosswalk on New Year’s Eve 2013 in San Francisco, Uber washed its hands of any responsibility. Why? The driver was an independent contractor, according to Uber. Never mind the fact that the driver was once arrested and charged with reckless driving for speeding 100 mph into oncoming traffic while trying to pass another car––something Uber’s faulty method used for .
But Goliath may have met his David in June 2015, with a claim by driver Barbara Berwick. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office ruled that Berwick should be classified as a direct employee, because “[Uber is] involved in every aspect of the operation” and that Uber owes her $4,000 in employee expenses. The ruling only applies to this single driver, and Uber is appealing the decision. But it is not the only case.