The state of California is set to pounce, so—big surprise!—Uber is playing Silicon Valley’s favorite get out of jail card: the “platform defense.” As in, “Judge, I couldn’t have committed the crime, I was a platform at the time.”
In the process, however, Uber may have helped energize critics who insist that Big Tech companies be held to account for their toxic negligence.
Quick backstory: California’s legislature this week passed, and Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign, a landmark bill designed to protect, among others, Uber and Lyft drivers—workers who punch the clock every day for employers, but are nonetheless treated as independent contractors. You know, as if the drivers are just a bunch of free agents who pick up customers as part of passenger-moving business plan they drew up and have begun executing.
The measure, called AB5, would instead require that a company treat its workers as employees if they exert control over how they perform their tasks or if their work is part of the company’s regular business. (And they certainly do.) The idea is to distinguish between workers who make the company tick and workers who are genuinely independent and are genuinely contracted to do sideline work.
The change in status mandated by the law would mean that the drivers—Uber and Lyft employ about 220,000 in California alone—be eligible for unemployment insurance and family leave, earn minimum wage and overtime, and have bargaining rights. By one estimate, Uber would need to spend $500 million to comply with the new law.