Uber and Lyft have been aggressively campaigning against a proposed law in California, AB 5, that would upend their business models if it compelled them and other gig economy companies to reclassify their independent contract workers as employees.
Now, some drivers in California have told Recode they’ve been confused and misled by the emails and in-app messages Uber and Lyft have sent urging them to sign petitions or contact their local legislators to voice opposition to potential worker reclassification.
One of the reasons drivers say they’ve been misled is because the messages Lyft and Uber have sent don’t mention AB 5 at all — both companies have markedly refrained from ever mentioning the law in their oppositional messaging — and they also don’t mention the potential for drivers to become real employees. Instead, they warn drivers that changes to California law could take away drivers’ options to drive at the times they want or work for more than one platform. For drivers who don’t speak or read English well, Uber’s and Lyft’s messages, which were not translated to other languages, have been even more confusing.
Uber and Lyft have denied any categorizations of their messaging as vague or misleading.
“When I first saw the petition, I thought it was something for us drivers,” said Anwar, a driver for Uber and Lyft who automatically signed Uber’s petition and later regretted it. “But when I talked to other drivers on WhatsApp, I learned more and realized that isn’t the case.”
The Uber notification Anwar received urged him to sign a petition for local lawmakers, telling them to help Uber “fight for driver flexibility and independence.” Lyft sent out a similar notification, but instead of offering a pre-filled petition as Uber’s did, it presented a blank email for drivers to fill out and sign.
“Uber and Lyft are very smart in the language that they use. They did not mention the law that lawmakers in California are trying to make, it only says they are trying to take our flexibility,” Anwar told Recode.
“I think you always have to be careful when an employer goes to an employee and asks them to sign something. The disparity of power in that situation means often the employee just signs it,” California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who authored AB 5, told Recode. California Governor Gavin Newsom and State Senator Scott Wiener did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, nor did State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, although a representative from his office said Rendon is in favor of AB 5.
Plenty of drivers said they understood Uber’s and Lyft’s political messaging. And some drivers who spoke to Recode made an articulate case for why they want to remain independent contractors. (A poll of 1,200 drivers by independent blog The Rideshare Guy last year showed that about 76 percent of respondents wanted to remain independent contractors rather than become employees.) But other drivers felt the companies used disingenuous language around losing job flexibility to push their political agenda.
While these drivers want flexibility, they also want the kinds of benefits that would come with being an employee — things like health care, paid time off, and workers’ compensation. For years, many drivers have complained about the lack of these benefits and low pay, as seen with the driver strike in May. Uber and Lyft have said publicly in recent weeks that they’d be willing to improve driver pay policies, expand benefits, and create a driver association in partnership with lawmakers and labor groups — but only if they do not have to categorize their workers as employees.
Anwar, a Yemeni immigrant who chats in a WhatsApp group with other drivers, said only after talking to other drivers did he realize the full political context surrounding the issue. He criticized Uber and Lyft for not directly mentioning AB 5 or linking to context about the bill. The messages from Uber and Lyft did link to a recent joint op-ed written by executives of both companies that addressed worker issues, but they did not make any direct references to AB 5.
Other drivers told Recode that because of the manner in which the in-app messages appeared in Uber and Lyft, they thought it was mandatory to sign a petition or send an email to legislators. In the Uber app, these drivers said the notification resembled other important notifications, such as terms of service updates, that drivers have to accept in order to continue driving.
“When you look in the app, it looks like something important you have to check,” said Al Aloudi, a driver for Uber and Lyft for seven years and an active member of driver activist groups such as Gig Workers Rising. “When you see that notification and photo in the app, it usually means you have to go in the app.”
Uber and Lyft have maintained that their messaging was transparent and that they were clear that participating in the campaign to contact legislators was optional.
Messages were sent in a transparent manner, and drivers were not required to support the petition or take action in any way prior to accessing the app, an Uber spokesperson told Recode, who also said that drivers who opt not to take action will not be impacted in any way.
A spokesperson from Lyft shared, “The message in the Lyft driver app was only visible if drivers navigated into the news section of the app. Reading it was not required to go online and drive, nor for any other reason.”
Drivers for whom English is a second language reported being particularly confused by the messages.
“Most of the drivers I know, they don’t speak English very well.” said Omar, a driver for Uber and Lyft in California who is active within a network of other Arabic-speaking drivers. “When they see anything comes from Uber, they get scared. They say, ‘Oh, if I don’t sign it, I cannot log in again.’”
Drivers reported that the political messages from Uber and Lyft were not translated in native languages common among drivers, such as Arabic, Mandarin, or Spanish — and they said this contributed to their confusion.
Lyft does offer a Spanish version of its driver app that regularly translates the company’s communications, but it did not translate the messages about contacting legislators about protecting work flexibility. Uber also offers its driver app in several languages other than English, including Arabic and Spanish, but according to app screenshots drivers shared with Recode, it also did not translate the recent political messages in those languages.
“While we are striving to send messages in more languages, any driver who was unclear about the contents of this email could contact our support desk for clarification,” a spokesperson for Lyft wrote in a statement.
Some ESL drivers — many withholding their names because they fear retaliation from Uber and Lyft — said they also are concerned the companies are keeping track of who did and didn’t sign the petition, and would deactivate or withhold rides from those who didn’t.
Uber and Lyft are keeping track of who signs, but not to be used against drivers in any way, the companies say. Both companies have categorically denied they retaliate against drivers, and there is no evidence that they have done so.
Nevertheless, many drivers fear being punished for displeasing Uber or Lyft in any way, especially when those drivers have limited language skills and rely on ride-share driving for their entire incomes. The anxiety also underscores the instability and insecurity contract-based drivers feel in regard to their work. Even though no one has ever shown that Uber or Lyft cracked down on employees for voicing their opinions about legislation or advocating for employee status, many workers live in fear of losing their livelihoods or seeing their earnings plummet — historically, ride-share platforms have deactivated drivers when their star ratings fall below a certain threshold, and factors like pay cuts and algorithm tweaks have caused drivers’ earnings to drop unexpectedly.
“I read [the petition] but I didn’t understand it,” said one Uber driver, who withheld his name for fear of retaliation. “I was scared and I signed. I don’t want to lose my job,” said the driver. “They asked me to put a comment, so I just put, ‘I love Uber,’” he said.
Some drivers Recode spoke with said they had no problem with the recent messages from Uber and Lyft, and explained why they wanted to remain independent contractors.
“I enjoy the flexibility of being your own boss and not having an adherence to Uber and Lyft,” said Tom Hume, who has been driving for Uber for two years in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a part-time stock trader. “I didn’t feel pushed nor persuaded with any pressure — but that’s partly because I’ve already formed my own stance on this.”
Hume said he “meticulously keeps track” of driving expenses like gas, tire damage, break fluid changes, and taillight fixes. He worries that if he was an employee, he wouldn’t be able to deduct these expenses and that the government would take a higher percentage of his income in the form of payroll tax.
In interviews with drivers, there was a profound difference between a subset of those like Hume, who worked for Uber and Lyft only part time and had basic awareness of labor law and taxes, when compared to other drivers — often recent immigrants — who felt powerless and more vulnerable.
“Will we have to wear uniforms?”
One thing that stood out from over a dozen interviews with drivers was the widespread uncertainty about what will happen if drivers become employees.
Many drivers weren’t sure what exactly would happen if California lawmakers do end up passing AB 5. Some worried that they would be forced to choose to work for only one app, either Uber or Lyft. Others feared that they would be forced to work a minimum number of hours or forfeit their right to cancel a passenger they didn’t want to take. Several voiced anxiety that they would have to give up freedom in more superficial ways, like having to wear uniforms.
The reality is that none of these scenarios are directly addressed by AB 5 or other legal efforts to classify workers as employees. All the bill would do is codify into law an existing landmark legal ruling, Dynamex, that makes it harder than it was previously for companies to classify a worker as a contractor rather than an employee. Technically, companies could provide as much or as little flexibility in scheduling employees’ working hours as they want.
“Nothing prohibits people from working [for] multiple companies, nothing in the labor code or this law,” Assemblywoman Gonzalez told Recode.
However, ride-sharing companies have made the case that, historically, when companies are obligated to provide the financial overhead that comes with employment, then they are motivated to exert more control over their workforce.
“I do think there is validity to their argument that once you move away from this arm’s-length contractor structure, you will start to trade off flexibility,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. “Typically, with an employment contract, the employee is saying, ‘You’re giving me certain benefits, but in exchange, I’m committing to work a predefined a number of hours every week and not work for a competitor.’”
Lyft and Uber have made similar arguments.
“Virtually all employers require their workers to have scheduled shifts, and there is not a single example of a company that offers employees the level of flexibility that Lyft drivers enjoy,” a spokesperson for Lyft said in part in a statement to Recode.
But other labor experts weren’t buying the companies’ reasoning, saying that there’s no reason, in their view, why employees couldn’t be granted the same flexibility they have today as contractors.
“There have always been industries, like the garment industry, where you can work as much or as little as you want,” said Louis Hyman, a work historian at Cornell University and the director of the Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. “I think it’s about Uber and Lyft being more imaginative on this.”
Classifying workers as employees would, by ride-sharing executives’ own admission, pose a risk to their business. According to a recent Barclays estimate, reclassifying employees would cost Uber and Lyft about $3,625 a driver, which could amount to several hundreds of millions in additional annual operating losses per year. That’s a substantial loss for two companies that are still struggling to turn a profit.
Ultimately, though, whether or not Uber and Lyft take that hit will be up to California legislators, who will vote on AB 5 in a few months.
What remains to be seen is how effective recent driver campaigns will be in influencing political leadership — and whether lawmakers will agree with ride-sharing companies’ arguments against making their workers employees.
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