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article imageOp-Ed: CA Legal team says Employment laws are being broken by Uber/Lyft Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jul 19, 2017 in Lifestyle
Sonoma - Finally, the 21st Century arrives to the quaint town of Sonoma with the latest in "ride-hailing services." Or as they are officially referred to by the State Public Utilities Commission, "Transportation Network Companies."
With public transportation limited in the Valley of The Moon, a TNC like Uber or Lyft is a welcomed change. The use of smartphone technology has made selecting a TNC over a traditional taxi so much more efficient, cost-effective and convenient.
For a semi-rural area like Sonoma and adjacent Petaluma, having a ride at the press of a button on one's phone is a godsend. Without question convenience is part of its appeal. No more handling money, fumbling with change or taking out your credit card to swipe. Once the customer downloads the app, signs on, designates a credit card or PayPal account, all is done electronically. And, that includes receipts to your email or text message. How simple is that!
Since arriving in Sonoma County and Wine Country in 2014, TNCs have been expanding. As reported by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat shortly after Uber and Lyft was made available, more than 1,600 drivers signed up in the Santa Rosa and Napa areas. And, combined the drivers made over 250,000 trips picking up riders traveling short and long-distances. What is happening in Sonoma and surrounding wine country is happening in many places across the nation. Since its arrival in New York City, for example use of Uber has increased dramatically to 16 million riders, according to the NY Times.
This reporter had the opportunity to utilize both Lyft and Uber and talked to drivers. They all said pretty much the same, the convenience for both rider and driver is far superior to that of a traditional taxi service. Use of GPS and state-of-the-art technology provides up-to-the-minute directions and maps that a dispatcher by radio-system at a taxi company is not readily able to do. This makes for pick up and drop off of riders less time consuming.
Some drivers work with both Uber and Lyft. They say both companies are much the same. An additional appeal is each driver can set his or her own hours and it can be literally at any time, (day or night) just turn on the app on the smartphone and a driver is 'working.'
Typically, an average amount taken in per hour is about 35.00. One driver said he and his wife now go out to dinner one night a week, to swanky places like Don Giovanni's in Napa. The extra money makes the all difference, since he started driving part time over a year ago.
Yet, underneath the 'win-win' veneer there are some drawbacks. While the ease and convenience of a new revolutionizing technology is a major motivator, most of the cost is placed upon the driver.
Each driver must take on 'over-head' costs of gas, maintenance, etc, Uber can take as much as 20 percent of the profit. Initially, the drivers I talked to accept it as part of doing business with Uber or with Lyft.
Traditional taxi companies are strictly regulated, (including permits, medallions and lots of taxes and fees.) With a taxi company vehicles are routinely checked, maintained and all drivers must be screened, bonded and insured before becoming part of the taxi service fleet. With Uber, Lyft and other TNCs most of that formality, is forgone.
How this impacts safety and quality varies depending upon circumstances. Of the 12 drivers this reporter met, four were experienced taxi drivers who used to work for companies like DeSoto and Luxor in San Francisco. Obviously, taxi companies are not pleased. The LA Times reported that use of taxi service in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco have dropped by as much as 30 percent. In New York City it is even higher. But the technological revolution has opened the door of a new opportunity that will not be closing any time soon.
“We think drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft are employees  not independent contractors  say...
“We think drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft are employees, not independent contractors, says Nayantara Mehta, senior attorney at National Employment Law Project. It is based on the actual work they do. But TNC companies (like Uber and Lyft) continue to insist their drivers are independent contractors," she said.
Courtesy of National Employment Law Project
California State Assemblyman Evan Low is working to make it possible that taxi companies and TNCs can compete in this game-changing situation. He has introduced AB 1069 to the CA State legislature in an effort to ease regulations so that taxi companies can catch up to this prolific change. Yet as the LA Times pointed out in a report this past June. Even if Low’s bill passes, major regulatory disparities between ride-hailing companies and taxis will remain.
"Our focus is the drivers, the backbone of TNC's like Uber and Lyft," said Nayantara Mehta. She spoke to this reporter and shared her concerns. As senior staff attorney at The National Employment Law Project located in the Bay Area, she knows all too well the vulnerability drivers have when dealing with a company like Uber, whose former CEO Travis Kalanick has an alleged net worth of over six billion dollars.
Drivers take on most of the over-head costs, the liability, etc. Uber simply provides the technology platform drivers use to make contact with riders and get directions for travel. For Mehta and her staff, the difficulty is getting law makers to understand the imbalance. "It's the business model of TNC's like Uber and Lyft," she said.
“We think drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft are employees, not independent contractors, based on the actual work they do. But TNC companies continue to insist their drivers are independent contractors. Why that distinction matters to a driver is that employee status brings with it many protections," said Mehta, "such as access to unemployment benefits and workers compensation, protections from discrimination, and a minimum wage. Being called an independent contractor means a driver is not automatically subject to all these protections."
This makes drivers extremely vulnerable to not only to risks and abuse but to clear violations of employment laws. How does Uber and Lyft get away with it?
Powerful pressuring and lobbying is how TNCs like Uber and Lyft have succeeded in usurping established regulations, codes and ordinances.
Assemblyman Low believes relaxing laws and shifting licencing responsibilities to counties rather than cities and towns will create a 'win-win' for everyone; especially as TNC and ride-hailing technology is the future. As he told the Los Angeles Times, he and his team see the advance of TNC's as a positive thing. It would not only help reduce traffic congestion and stress on the environment but ultimately would help the drivers too. Low wants to level the playing field for taxi companies. He has sympathy for the situation. But, as reported by the LA Times, Gov. Jerry Brown views major change in taxi regulation as not warranted and that is why for now AB 1069 at his desk is vetoed.
This does not surprise some observers in the media, like Matt Vella of Time magazine. He and fellow journalist Katy Steinmetz noted in a recent issue that technology in its rapid advancing is always going to outpace law, government or even the general public's ability to understand the consequences of the impact of such advancing technology.
With the departure of CEO, Travis Kalanick officials at Uber say the company will address the issues facing drivers. Just recently Uber has installed ways for customers to provide tips to drivers through the Uber app. Rebecca Smith who serves as deputy director at the National Employment Law Project noted that attempts to help drivers is a step. But that more importantly Uber must change its business model. Smith pointed out in her writing on the NELP web site, greed and 'the bottom line' are placed above everything else.
This is why attorneys and employment advocates like Smith and Mehta at NELP are persistent in getting the attention of policy advisors and lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the residents of Sonoma and its growing outreach to tourists can enjoy the benefit of TNC vehicles being available to meet their needs in a small and sequestered town in the wine country of Northern California.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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