Drivers working for Uber and Lyft say they have failed to provide adequate protection and compensation. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

State officials sue Uber and Lyft for wage theft

California Labor Commissioner’s Office alleges ride-hail companies violating AB5

State officials are suing Uber and Lyft for wage theft, seeking to recover unpaid wages and other compensation owed to drivers.

The California Labor Commissioner’s Office said Wednesday that the ride-hail companies have misclassified drivers as independent contractors instead of employees, violating the controversial legislation AB5 which came into effect this year.

“It’s a great step forward but there’s still more to do … We need to start having conversations about increasing the overall wages that drivers make,” said Chris Chandler, driver advocate of labor group Rideshare Drivers United. “We’re still in a pandemic. A lot of drivers are struggling to make ends meet … drivers still need access to things like plexiglass partitions and disinfecting wipes and other supplies that allow drivers to stay on the road.”

Meanwhile, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a coalition of city attorneys have filed a separate lawsuit against Uber and Lyft for allegedly misclassifying drivers.

Without basic protections such as minimum wage, Edan Alva, a driver leader with San Jose-based advocacy group Gig Workers Rising, said he quit driving for Lyft in April. During the coronavirus pandemic, he earned about $5 an hour as rides dwindled. And Alva bought his own disinfectants as he said the company did not provide any.

“I have a family, friends, a child, people in my life that I don’t want to risk infecting: Is it worth five dollars an hour?” Alva said.

According the Lyft’s website, it has distributed free hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies to drivers nationally. And Uber said it is distributing health and safety supplies at its hubs across the nation, including San Francisco, according to the company website.

In the meantime, Uber contended that the vast majority of California drivers wish to work independently. “And we’ve already made significant changes to our app to ensure that remains the case under state law,” Davis White, a spokesperson for Uber, said in a statement. “When 3 million Californians are without a job, our leaders should be focused on creating work, not trying to shut down an entire industry.”

In support of the company is Jim Pyatt, an Uber and Lyft driver who works mainly in San Francisco. He criticized the state for its lawsuits announced Wednesday. He said that being an independent contractor allows him flexibility.

“You can drive anywhere you want at any given day,” Pyatt said. “And it fits my schedule. My parents are elderly. I have grandkids. I want that flexibility.”

Pyatt is also a driver advocate for Yes on 22, a campaign backing the ballot initiative Proposition 22. Supported by Uber, Lyft and Doordash, the November ballot measure asks voters to exempt the companies from AB5, allowing them to classify drivers as independent contractors and offer some protections.

Meanwhile, Gig Workers Rising will be hosting a rally at the Oakland Uber Hub Thursday against Proposition 22.

“These companies have been treating drivers horribly for years … drivers deserve to be acknowledged, compensated for all that was taking away from them,” Alva said. “We’re talking about years of labor theft, preventing or denying drivers from basic workers protections.”

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