Uber vows to keep fighting sweeping California labour bill

Kathleen Ronayne & Don Thompson

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) – California lawmakers confronting the changing definition of work have approved sweeping legislation designed to give many contract workers new pay and benefit protections, but tech giants Uber and Lyft vowed to keep fighting the changes, possibly by bankrolling an expensive fight on the 2020 ballot.

The measure, passed on Wednesday, that is heading to Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom outlines a three-part test that makes it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors who are not entitled to minimum wage and benefits like workers compensation.

Uber has argued that forcing its drivers to become employees would upend a business model that is built on flexibility. General counsel Tony West suggested to reporters that the ride-hailing company won’t start treating its workers as employees come January 1, instead defending its model if it faces legal challenges.

“Just because the test is hard does not mean we will not be able to pass it,” he said.

Newsom has pledged to sign the measure, but his office hopes to bring ride-hailing and meal delivery companies to the table with labour unions to negotiate a separate set of rules for workers who pick up jobs on their own schedules in the so-called gig economy.

The freshman governor faces a test of his ability to broker a compromise between powerful interest groups in Silicon Valley and organised labour. Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation, a sponsor of the legislation, said the companies so far haven’t made acceptable proposals.

“We’re committed to creating the conditions for (negotiations) to happen,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said.

If Newsom signs the legislation, it could have national implications as politicians and businesses confront the shifting nature of work.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has indicated interest in pursuing a similar measure, and almost all the Democratic presidential contenders have offered similar proposals at the federal level.

“It’s forced the nation to take a look at what the future of work is going to look like,” Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon of Whittier said in supporting the bill.

The measure would enshrine in law a 2018 California Supreme Court decision that makes it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees. While the court’s decision has set legal precedent since last year, the legislation provides enforcement tactics to the state and to city attorneys, who could sue companies they believe are failing to comply.