In summary

Prop. 22 is designed to permanently exempt workers from sick leave or workers’ compensation, or provide them with a living wage.

By Rey Fuentes, Special to CalMatters

Rey Fuentes is a Skadden Fellow at the Partnership for Working Families, rey@forworkingfamilies.org.

If you hold a job in America, care about workers or simply don’t like the idea of some of the richest corporations in the world literally writing their own laws, then you can’t afford to ignore what’s happening in California.

Instead of investing in more worker protections during a deadly pandemic, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and others are directing more than $180 million toward a California ballot initiative, Proposition 22

Not only does this mountain of cash make it the most expensive ballot initiative in history, it’s also buying deceptive advertising to mask the initiative’s true purpose: a measure designed to permanently exempt workers from vital protections and benefits like paid leave, a living wage or unemployment insurance in order to protect the companies’ bottom lines.  

Consider workers like Saori Okawa. After immigrating from Japan, Saori started working for Lyft in San Francisco while attending City College. Saori was drawn in by the promise of a flexible schedule and decent pay, but that turned out to be impossible. Because of repeated pay cuts, Saori was forced to work longer and longer hours, sometimes working grueling 70-hour weeks while trying to stay afloat in school. 

She was involved in a few accidents – like many who drive full-time – but never received any benefits from the company, like health insurance, workers’ compensation or paid time off. Saori eventually joined Uber, but it was more of the same. In the end, she was abandoned by Uber and Lyft when she needed them most. 

Saori’s story is cautionary. If we allow Uber and Lyft to buy their own laws in California, we won’t be able to stop them from doing the same elsewhere. In fact, President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor has already taken steps that would continue to benefit billion-dollar companies like Uber at the expense of its workers.

The companies’ retort is that laws like Prop. 22 would extend “historic” workplace benefits to workers. Yet, my colleagues and I analyzed Proposition 22 and found that this claim is simply untrue.

In addition to canceling protective local laws and making it next to impossible for the California Legislature to undo this proposition, Prop. 22 would legalize what can only be described as wage theft and leave workers without core protections like sick leave or workers’ compensation. 

Under the initiative, companies like Uber would pay nothing for time spent getting gas, disinfecting cars, buying masks or waiting online for the next job – a period that can be as much as half of the time a driver is working. 

The measure further promises a system to compensate drivers injured on the job; common among those who drive for a living. But disability benefits would be cut off after two years whereas seriously injured and disabled workers could get lifetime benefits under current law. 

Other studies show that, when taking all this into account, a driver will only be guaranteed $5.64 an hour. In fact, as many as one-in-five drivers likely net zero dollars after accounting for expenses. Prop. 22 would drive down wages, plain and simple.

In defiance of law and logic, companies like Uber, Lyft and Instacart respond by saying that their drivers are not employees, but customers performing independent work on the companies’ “platforms.” 

This “platform” logic has disturbing implications for anyone who works. As a California Superior Court judge presciently warned, “[w]ere this reasoning to be accepted, the rapidly expanding majority of industries that rely heavily on technology could with impunity deprive legions of workers the basic protections afforded to employees.”

And other industries are watching. Every nurse, janitor or construction worker in America could be hired by an app like Uber and Lyft’s, dispatched to a job and be told that they are performing their work as an “independent business,” not an employee. 

This should not become the norm in our country, and many Californians agree, especially those in the Hispanic and Latino communities, who are among the least likely to back Prop. 22. 

In short, this is what Proposition 22 is all about: some of the richest companies in the world using deceptive data and catchy slogans to turn back the clock to a time when they wrote the rules we must live by.

If these companies can get their way in November, it’s fair to ask: Who’s next?

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CalMatters Guide to the propositions: Proposition 22: Gig worker benefits

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