Christopher Arellano was one of the first gig workers to sign up for Lyft when it launched in San Francisco in 2012. Since then, he’s given more than 26,000 rides on the app, but he’s never been reimbursed for gas or the wear-and-tear on his car—and often, he earns less than San Francisco’s $15.59 an hour minimum wage. To make matters worse, he’s never seen a raise. In fact, his wages have steadily dropped since he began driving for the app in 2012.
On Wednesday, Arellano and more than 100 other Uber and Lyft drivers will file wage theft claims amounting to millions of dollars at the California Labor Commissioner offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. They are asking to be reclassified as employees and receive three years' back pay for minimum wage and overtime violations, and other expenses accrued on the job such as the costs of gasoline.
“We’ve taken so many pay cuts throughout the years. It feels good to stand up for your rights and dignity,” said Arellano. “It feels like standing up to a high school bully.”
The wage theft campaign “People’s Enforcement of AB5,” organized with the grassroots driver group Rideshare Drivers United, which now has more than 10,000 driver-members in California, is part of attempt to push the state of California to enforce a controversial law that went into effect on January 1—known as AB5. The law is intended to reclassify gig workers from independent contractors to employees, granting them a whole new set of labor rights and protections they had previously been denied.
But, so far though, little has changed.
“I’ve been driving for 35 hours plus a week since 2012. As you can imagine, they owe me a lot,” said Arellano, the Lyft driver from San Francisco and an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. “But for me, it’s also a much broader issue, I want them to implement AB5. We’re trying to organize this driver-led campaign to force the state to comply and with the wage claims, they have the opportunity to enforce the law.”
In some instances, individual drivers say they’re owed more than $100,000. Rideshare Drivers United says that the total amount filed for on Wednesday could be up to $3 or $4 million.
AB5 and a 2018 California supreme court ruling, known as Dynamex, make it difficult for gig companies to claim their workers aren’t employees. But Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Postmates have spent millions on overturning the bill. They argue that providing workers with these benefits would destroy their business models and reduce worker flexibility.
A group called GetBackLostWages.com, founded last May by the Tech Workers Coalition, provided technical research to drivers for filing wage theft claims. Rideshare Drivers United then built their own wage theft calculator for drivers and have streamlined the process to help more drivers file claims.
If reclassified, the law makes gig workers eligible for overtime pay, worker’s compensation, and other basic labor protections that tech companies like Uber and Lyft have circumvented as part of their business model. But so far, gig companies Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and DoorDash have refused to recognize drivers as employees—spending nearly $110 million on a 2020 ballot initiative to overturn the bill.
“Right now it’s a month into AB5 being law of the land, which says that companies can’t misclassify drivers as independent contractors and that we’re actually supposed to receive the full benefits all workers receive,” Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and a lead organizer of the wage theft campaign, told Motherboard.
Moore says that by filing wage theft claims en masse with the California Labor Commissioner, drivers hope to put pressure on the state to enforce AB5 and reclassify them as employees.
“We’re saying that if no one’s going to enforce AB5, then we will,” Moore continued. “The Labor Commissioner is designed for people to say ‘hey, wages are being stolen from me’ and allows the state to investigate and be on your side and enforce California labor law.”
The national industrial union, Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), which has represents roughly 150,000 transit sector workers in the United States, including the country’s first bikeshare unions, teamed up with Rideshare Drivers United to help support workers filing the wage theft claims. The union says it’s vying to unionize Uber and Lyft drivers if they are reclassified as employees. (Independent contractors do not have collective bargaining rights and cannot form unions. Thus, Lyft and Uber drivers must wait to be reclassified before they can join unions.)
“Obviously we locked arms with ride-share drivers for them to be classified as direct employees rather than contractors,” John Samuelsen, the president of TWU, told Motherboard. “We organize across all transport sectors in America and we haven’t been bashful about saying it. We’re in the organizing business. Our goal is to have ride-share drivers become part of the TWU umbrella.”
This article has been updated to clarify the Tech Workers Coalition's role in filing wage theft claims for drivers. Motherboard regrets the error.