WASHINGTON: Labour activists were celebrating California's move that would require rideshare firms to treat contract drivers as employees even as it has sparked concerns it will hurt digital platforms depending on the so-called "gig economy".
A landmark bill was approved 29-11 late Sept 10 in the state senate, with the assembly – which has already approved the measure – expected to send it to California Governor Gavin Newsom.
The legislation, which is being closely watched in other states, responds to critics who argue that companies like Uber and Lyft shortchange drivers by denying them employee benefits.
The law, if enacted, challenges the business model of the rideshare platforms and others which depend on workers taking on "gigs" as independent contractors.
"This is a huge win for workers across the nation!" tweeted the California Labor Federation, which endorsed the bill known as AB 5.
"It's time to rebuild the middle class and ensure ALL workers have the basic protections they deserve."
Newsom said however he was in talks with Lyft and Uber on a possible compromise, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The governor planned to "stay at the bargaining table, to continue to negotiate," the report said.
Business model challenged
Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said in a statement after the vote that the state's political leadership "missed an important opportunity to support the overwhelming majority of rideshare drivers who want a thoughtful solution that balances flexibility with an earnings standard and benefits."
Durbin added: "We are fully prepared to take this issue to the voters of California to preserve the freedom and access drivers and riders want and need."
Uber and Lyft warned about the impact of such laws in a co-bylined op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle ahead of the vote.
"It's also no secret that a change to the employment classification of rideshare drivers would pose a risk to our businesses," the statement said.
But Lorena Gonzalez, the Democrat who authored the bill, said the legislation helps protect the drivers and stops platforms offloading social costs.
"We cannot sit by while companies pass off their own costs of doing business onto California's taxpayers and responsible businesses, while depriving millions of workers of the labor law protections that they are rightfully entitled to," Gonzalez said in a recent statement.
Creating a safety net
Lyft and Uber have argued that a large number of their drivers want to be able to work on their own schedule without the restrictions of full-time employment.
Arun Sundararajan, a New York University professor and author of The Sharing Economy, said the California lawmakers failed to consider ways to offer social benefits while supporting a more flexible labour model.
The bill "will hurt all of the platforms through an increased cost structure," Sundararajan told AFP.
"But it will hurt the smaller platforms more because they will be less able to spread demand across the workforce."
Sundararajan said that in addition to raising prices, the new legislation "would make it virtually impossible" for a new startup to emerge in the sector to challenge entrenched rivals.
He expressed disappointment that the legislators failed to address a way to offer health care and retirement benefits that are not linked to full-time employment.
"There's no reason why someone has to be boxed into the full-time employment category in order to get benefits," he said.
Still, he said the emergence of digital platforms and sharing economy models means this segment is likely to continue to grow despite the legislative moves.
"I wouldn't say this is a turning point, it just means there is still a lot of work to be done to fashion a social safety net," he said. – AFP