Uber hit with new lawsuit on whether its drivers are employees

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Angela Lang/CNET

The lawsuits against Uber over whether its drivers are employees or independent contractors have already begun. On the heels of California legislators passing a landmark bill on Tuesday that could make gig economy companies reclassify their workers as employees, Uber’s chief legal officer said the law won’t necessarily apply to the ride-hailing company. But some drivers disagree.

A proposed class-action lawsuit was filed against Uber in federal court in California on Wednesday, according to The New York Times. The suit was brought by attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who in the past has filed several suits against gig economy companies including Uber, Lyft and Grubhub for reportedly misclassifying workers.

Uber drivers are currently classified as independent contractors, sometimes referred to as gig workers, which means they don’t get benefits including Social Security, health insurance, paid sick days, workers’ compensation or overtime. Many drivers say this system has led to exploitation. The bill that passed this week, AB 5, aims to provide such protections by shifting gig worker classification to employee. Once it’s signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the law is slated to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, said during a press call with reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t believe Uber will be beholden to the law.

“Because we continue to believe drivers are properly classified as independent … drivers will not be automatically be reclassified as employees, even after January of next year,” he said.

The new lawsuit, however, is asking the court to place an injunction against Uber requiring it to classify its drivers as employees, according to the Times. The complaint says Uber should be required to pay its California drivers minimum wage, overtime and expense reimbursements.

If Uber doesn’t reclassify its drivers as employees in California once AB 5 goes into effect, it’ll likely face a slew of other legal battles from drivers across the state. West said Wednesday the company is prepared for such suits.

“Uber is no stranger to legal battles,” he said. “We operate in a very regulated environment and we recognize that there will be legal challenges on all fronts.”

“I think it’s almost past is prologue here,” he continued. “I think it is an environment that we have gotten quite used to.”

Some lawyers say Uber will face an uphill battle with these worker classification lawsuits.  

“In classification disputes, workers are in a far more favorable position when the hiring entity has to prove their classification of someone as a contractor was right, rather than the worker having to prove it was wrong,” said California-based employment law attorney Bryan Lazarski. But, he added, “changes workers can actually see may take many more years and many more legal battles to achieve.”          

Liss-Riordan and Uber didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.