City Attorney Dennis Herrera could soon gain the ability to enforce worker classification standards against companies like Uber. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Last-minute AB5 amendment empowers city attorney to sue Uber for labor violations

Gig-worker bill would reclassify some contractors as employees

UPDATE 10:00 p.m. 9/10/19: Assembly Bill 5 won senate approval late Tuesday night, 29-11, and awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature.

The original story follows below.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera could soon get far more power to hold Uber and Lyft to the letter of the law.

The much-anticipated, highly controversial Assembly Bill 5, authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), is expected to be approved by the state senate this week. It would reclassify some independent contractors, like Uber drivers, as employees.

The aim is to give gig workers like ride-hail drivers a pathway to health care benefits and job stability. Uber, Lyft, and a coalition of other tech companies argue it would rob their contractors of job “flexibility,” and have already pledged $90 million toward a 2020 state ballot measure to repeal AB5.

On Friday night that bill was given more teeth, as last-minute amendments armed city attorneys statewide with the ability to enforce AB5’s new worker classification standards.

Gig Workers Rising, a local coalition of gig-economy workers including ride-hail drivers, commended the new powers for city attorneys.

“It’s about time Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other companies face strong local enforcement when flouting labor law,” Lauren Casey of Gig Workers Rising said, in a statement. “Imagine how many millions in stolen tips would have gone directly to drivers if San Francisco had taken action against DoorDash, for instance.”

DoorDash infamously took tips offered digitally to delivery gig-workers and used it toward their base pay, it was widely reported.

“We’re happy to see that local district attorneys are going to be empowered to go after companies that cheat workers, and we hope they do so aggressively,” Casey said.

Ride-hail drivers have repeatedly staged protests outside Uber headquarters on Market Street, stopping traffic, honking horns, and telling their tales: Many sleep in their cars to make ends meet driving for the ride-hail companies, or just hovering above poverty.

Perhaps with a nod to San Francisco, the language of AB5’s Friday amendment states legal remedies can be sought by the state attorney general or by a city attorney “of a city having a population in excess of 750,000,” a clause some political insiders noted is oddly specific.

That’s roughly the population of San Francisco, per the last census.

There is precedent for such a specifically tailored clause. California Code section 17204 uses similar phrasing to allow city attorneys to pursue fraudulent businesses. That code was amended in 1992, 2004 and 2008.

Gonzalez, the bill’s author, wrote on Twitter that “we amended AB5 to make sure City Attorneys in large cities (San Diego, SF, San Jose & LA) could sue for injunctive relief to enforce AB5.”

She added, “#DisruptInequality.”

Herrera is apparently grateful for the ability to sue Uber and Lyft on behalf of gig-workers.

“Ensuring workers are treated fairly is one of the trademarks of this office. We have a track record of taking on such cases, whether it’s making sure workers receive proper health care or are paid what they’ve earned,” Herrera said in a statement.

“The state doesn’t necessarily have the resources to handle every case,” Herrera added. “City attorneys, district attorneys and other local prosecutors are a force multiplier when it comes to protecting workers and consumers. It makes sense to have effective enforcement. You do that by providing local prosecutors with the legal tools to do the job.”

Locally, elected leaders have been inspired into action by AB5.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman held a hearing at City Hall in June on AB5, and called on city departments to explore more ways to protect gig-economy workers.

“Are we enforcing every single legal remedy we have right now?” Mandelman asked publicly in June. “We should be using every tool in the toolbox,” he added, and “there’s tremendous political will on this board to make this happen.”

Uber declined to comment.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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