While the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across this nation, employers are taking advantage of the pandemic-induced recession to, once again, eliminate jobs and transition workers into the gig-economy. A recent New York Times article highlights the uncertainty facing today's workers. The labor market has only recovered 12 million of the 22 million jobs lost this past spring, leaving 10 million formerly employed workers, often in the service-industry, reeling. Many of these jobs may not return once the pandemic is over and the economy improves, as happened after the Great Recession of 2008. While the New York Times notes that these workers often need retraining or additional education to compete for jobs, gig-economy companies continue to hire these vulnerable workers without the employment protections to which workers are – or should be - entitled. In California, the gig-economy companies pulled off a sleight of hand, through the most disproportionately-funded ballot measure in the state’s history, Proposition 22 ("Prop. 22"), for the purpose of potentially continuing to exempt their workers from some of the robust employee protections that California’s legislature, Governor, Supreme Court and lower courts had previously ensured. While the ballot measure succeeded, gig-economy workers should still have claims under the law.
The roots of today's gig-economy employment crisis began in 2008. At that time, 9 million workers lost their jobs. In its aftermath, workers often found less secure employment and/or relied on alternative work like being an independent contractor in the gig economy. Unsurprisingly, a plethora of gig-economy companies, like DoorDash, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Postmates, have risen to be market leaders on the backs of these marginalized workers that they have treated as independent contractors exempt from legal protections. In response to the rise of the gig economy and the precarious position of gig-economy workers, all three branches of California government - the courts, legislature, and executive branch - re-affirmed that many gig-economy workers are employees entitled to the legal protections of the California Labor Code. Such protections include minimum wage (Cal. Lab. Code § 1194, among others), overtime (Cal. Lab. Code § 510), reimbursement for business expenses (Cal. Lab. Code § 2802), and paid sick leave (Cal. Lab. Code §246). Here at Bryan Schwartz Law, we have written extensively about California's efforts to protect gig-economy workers here, here, here, here, and here. In short, the California Supreme Court in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court held that workers are presumptively employees subject to the straightforward ABC test, which considers (among other things) whether the workers are providing the core services of the business (like those who drive for Uber and Lyft). The California legislature agreed with the Court and codified the ABC test outlined in Dynamex with A.B. 5, which the Governor signed, and went into effect on January 1, 2020. The Attorney General of California has sued Uber and Lyft (People v. Uber and Lyft (Sup. Ct. San Francisco), Case No. CGC-20-584402) to require them to stop misclassifying their workers under A.B. 5, and won a preliminary injunction on August 10, 2020 requiring Defendants to reclassify their drivers as employees during the pendency of the lawsuit.
In response, several gig-economy companies worked to place Prop. 22 on the ballot. Prop. 22 exempts from A.B. 5 any app-based drivers that (a) provide delivery services on-demand through an online application or platform or (b) use a personal vehicle to provide prearranged transportation services for compensation through an online application or platform. In other words, your ride-share drivers and food delivery persons are exempted from A.B. 5's codification of the ABC test. In order to sell Prop. 22 to voters through its advertising blitz, these gig-economy companies promised at least 120% of the minimum wage (which has been estimated to work out to $5.64 per hour after deducting for wear-and-tear) and 30 cents per mile when engaged - not waiting for a fare or order. While Prop. 22's passage is a setback for workers' rights, all may not be lost. Prop 22. may not be retroactive. Prop. 22 appears to be forward-looking and silent as to any worker misclassification claims that arose prior to Prop. 22's passage. When the Court issued its August 10th preliminary injunction, Judge Schulman appeared to suggest that "it would not moot out . . . past violations." (Order for Preliminary Injunction, People v. Uber and Lyft (Aug. 10, 2020), p.8). Furthermore, Prop. 22's provisions regarding healthcare subsidies and mileage reimbursement focus on future dates for payment or calculation. The remaining provisions do not explicitly discuss retroactive application except for Article 9. Article 9 provides that the Legislature may only amend Prop. 22 by a super-super majority - 7/8ths of the Legislature - including any amendments passed since October 29, 2019 (the date the ballot was filed). While it appears amending Prop. 22 will be challenging, this suggests that workers may continue to pursue claims for minimum wage, overtime, and reimbursement for business expenses that accrued prior to Prop. 22's passage. Furthermore, the 9th Circuit in Vazquez v. Jan-Pro Franchising International, Inc. made clear that Dynamex and the ABC test apply retroactively. Thus, workers may have significant misclassification claims that have accrued prior Prop. 22's passage.
Moreover, while Prop. 22 may have exempted gig-economy workers from the protections conferred upon them by A.B. 5 and the ABC test, gig-economy workers may be employees under other relevant tests. The Dynamex court extensively discussed 3 alternative tests (from Martinez v. Combs) for employment under California’s Wage Orders: 1) to exercise control over wages, hours, or working conditions; 2) to suffer or permit to work; and 3) to engage, thereby creating a common law employment relationship. You can learn more about these 3 alternative tests here and the Borello test for common law employment relationships here. The Dynamex court only applied the ABC Test with respect to the second alterative test: to suffer or permit to work. Dynamex (2018) 4 Cal.5th 903, 965. In enacting A.B. 5, the Legislature declared its intent to codify the Dynamex decision that "interpreted one of the three alternative definitions of 'employ,' the 'suffer or permit' definition . . . [and that] [n]othing in this act . . . affect[s] the application of alternative definitions . . . not addressed by the holding of Dynamex. Assembly Bill 5, Section 1(d) and (f), 2019-2020, Reg. Sess. The statute itself takes a more precise alternative in requiring that if a court rules the ABC test does not apply to a particular context, then the common law relationship test from Borello should be used. Labor Code § 2750(a)(3). Thus, A.B. 5's codification of Dynamex and the ABC test does not apply to the first and third alternative tests. Therefore, Prop. 22's exemption from A.B. 5 is limited to the second alternative test. With Prop. 22's passage and A.B. 5's statement that the Borello common law relationship test applies in the event a court exempts a particular situation from the ABC test, it is unclear which test shall be used to demonstrate that gig-economy workers are employees because Prop. 22, not a court, preempted A.B. 5. Workers may be employees under the first and/or third (Borello) tests and therefore entitled to the full protection of the California Labor Code.
Despite Prop. 22's passage, the fight for workers' rights continues. Gig-economy workers may still have misclassification claims moving forward. Workers and their advocates must recognize that while the fight may become more difficult after the misguided passage of Prop. 22, there are still avenues for pursuing these claims.