Alison Breen / Gavel Media

You Know Your Uber Driver's License Plate, But What's Their Employment Status?

State-level legislation does not always make big headlines, especially when national issues like immigration and climate change seem to be clogging up our Twitter feeds. One bill, however, recently signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newson, should catch the attention of all college students. The controversial AB5 will reclassify many categories of independent contractors, such as “construction workers, janitors, truckers, [and] nail salon workers.” Such employees will now have full legal protections, possess the right to organize, and be paid a minimum wage.

We all come into contact with independent contractors from time to time, and some of us may even have family members who do freelance work. One of the biggest groups affected by this new law, however, is one that college students know all too well: Uber, Lyft, and Doordash drivers. 

Under the new law, California ride-share workers will be given a minimum wage and full benefits. In the weeks leading up to AB5’s passage, debates raged over the ramifications of this proposal. Supporters of the status quo argued that the gig economy allows workers to have flexibility by setting their own hours. Many drivers, they argued, rely on services like Uber to generate extra income outside of another full-time job. Consumers, moreover, may experience longer wait times and higher fares if ride-share companies are forced to pay higher wages and benefits to their drivers.

Supporters of AB5 countered that the current practice “shifts risks and operating costs onto workers while maintaining company control over the price, pace, and style of labor.” On top of this, a significant amount of gig economy workers work more than 40 hours per week just to stay afloat. Workers would be better off, they argued, if they were allowed to legally organize and receive legal protections.  

Massachusetts already passed a law that requires contractors to be reclassified as employees if certain standards are met. However, the impact of these laws on ride-share drivers has been inconsistent. Massachusetts drivers have filed several lawsuits against companies like Uber. One lawsuit alleged that many drivers are only paid $8 an hour even though the minimum wage for employees is $12. Uber has paid $20 million in settlements in response to these suits. However, the official position of ride-share drivers remains unclear. 

Last year, many college students were forced to reconsider their use of ride-share services. Stories about kidnappings and sexual assaults by people posing as Uber or Lyft drivers made headlines across the country. 

This new wave of lawsuits and laws may cause students to think differently about how they use ride-share apps. Although these apps are innovative and incredibly convenient, should students think twice about paying for a service that places so much risk on the drivers themselves? And, if drivers do start getting higher wages and benefits, would students be willing to pay more and wait longer for their rides? If not, the dreaded B-Line might start seeing more traffic from BC students wanting to trek into the city.

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