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Future Of Ridesharing In California Rocky Following Judge's Order On Drivers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lyft and Uber are locked in a battle for survival in California. A state judge has ordered the ride-hailing companies to make their drivers employees instead of independent contractors. Lyft and Uber say this will force them to shut down in California within days. NPR's Bobby Allyn talked to those caught in the middle - the drivers.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: The easiest way to talk to Lyft or Uber drivers - order a ride. So I put on a mask and did just that half a dozen times on a recent afternoon.

Hi. Looking for Bobby?

UNIDENTIFIED DRIVER: Bobby?

ALLYN: Yeah.

Are you looking for Bobby?

How's it going?

Hi.

OSCAR AMAYA: Hey there. How are you?

ALLYN: Good. How you doing?

AMAYA: Good, good. Thanks.

ALLYN: I'm a reporter with National Public Radio.

AMAYA: OK.

ALLYN: And I'm doing a story about employment status among Uber and Lyft drivers.

I'm talking here to Lyft driver Oscar Amaya (ph) as we're driving around San Francisco. He doesn't want a change to his job status. It surprised me that every driver I talked to said the same exact thing. Independent contractor life has its perks.

AMAYA: I prefer to stay this way because I manage my own schedule. I mean, I don't have to report to anybody. I work anytime I want, whenever I want. If I want to take five days off, I just take it.

ALLYN: Amaya makes a point executives at Lyft and Uber make constantly. Drivers love flexibility. And the companies say if forced to hire all of its drivers as employees, say goodbye to the flexible schedules.

XAVIER BECERRA: That's absolutely bogus.

ALLYN: That's California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. It was his office that took Lyft and Uber to court. And it should be noted here that both companies are financial supporters of NPR.

BECERRA: The companies have towed this line, if we have to treat you like employees and offer you rights and benefits, then we won't be able to give you flexibility. There's nothing in the law that prevents them from providing the flexibility to their drivers that the drivers might want.

ALLYN: But the ride-hailing companies insist paying for all of that would mean shutting down in California, at least temporarily. Becerra doesn't buy any of that either.

BECERRA: They're supposed to be innovative companies. I'm surprised that they're saying that the only way they can do business is by shortchanging workers of their rights and their benefits.

ALLYN: But why then in interview after interview did drivers themselves tell me they want to stay independent contractors?

VEENA DUBAL: What you're hearing is fears that have been instilled in drivers by the companies themselves.

ALLYN: Veena Dubal is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. She studies the gig economy. She's interviewed hundreds of Lyft and Uber drivers. And at first, she heard the same thing. Drivers fear companies will reduce their hours, meaning they'd earn less money. But when she followed up with them and did deeper interviews, she found that drivers would actually like both flexible hours and benefits.

DUBAL: Like unemployment insurance if you're laid off, like workers' compensation if you're injured, health insurance if you work for the same company for over 30 hours a week.

ALLYN: But Dubal says drivers are already at the whim of the powerful tech firms, so they doubt the companies will give them benefits without taking something away.

Back with Lyft driver Amaya, when business sunk like a rock at the start of the pandemic, he started doing deliveries for FedEx. It was a job with benefits. Pretty quickly, though, he missed making his own hours and not having a boss.

AMAYA: So I was doing that for two months. And I hated that job, man. I mean, it was more work for less money.

ALLYN: The judge's order switching the status of drivers takes effect in days. But if the companies stick to their word and close up shop in California, Amaya says he'll have to take some drastic steps, too.

AMAYA: To be honest, I'm kind of worried because this is my only job. So if they decide to do that, I'm going to have to move to another state, man. And that's it.

ALLYN: But he's not rushing to pack up just yet. The legal battle will drag on for months, and the whole thing could get more complicated in November. That's when California voters will cast a ballot to choose if gig workers should become company employees.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.