One certainty we woke up to yesterday is that California had passed Prop. 22, the controversial ballot measure aimed at keeping California gig workers independent contractors.
The success of the measure means that app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart will be exempt from California’s AB 5 law, which requires businesses to classify gig workers as employees. And while tech companies’ Prop 22 victory is limited to California, it could have wide-reaching effects on how companies do business in other states and how they treat their workers.
Quick recap: Prop 22 was created in the wake of California’s Assembly Bill 5, which went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year. Under AB 5, employers must classify independent contractors as employees based on certain criteria, putting those companies on the hook to pay minimum wage, paid sick leave, health insurance, and other benefits. While AB 5 included some exemptions, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and other app-based businesses were not among them.
Hence the fight. In the lead-up to Election Day, proponents of Prop. 22 — which was basically bankrolled by the aforementioned tech companies — argued that having to classify drivers as employees would reduce jobs, limit drivers’ ability to work for multiple companies and ultimately raise costs for consumers. Uber and other app-based businesses spent roughly $200 million on the ballot-measure, making it the most expensive in California history.
By contrast, Prop. 22 opponents spent less than $20 million. They have argued that Prop. 22 exploits workers and undermines job stability.
Had Prop. 22 been voted down, companies like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart, and others would have had to shift their business models, which have been essentially built on the backs of gig workers, or make good on their threats to leave certain states. Instead, Prop 22 passed, and now there’s concern of a ripple effect on laws in other states and on labor standards in general for delivery jobs. Contract workers save companies money, since employers aren’t having to shell out for benefits, so it’s an obviously attractive option for companies. But as EaterSF pointed out yesterday, there is concern that Prop 22 could “usher in a whole new era of businesses taking their labor disputes to voters, instead of resolving them with local or state agencies.”
In California, other industries may also see the successful passing of Prop. 22 as motivation to push for their own exemptions from AB 5. That would mean fewer protections for workers across more industries, and lower standards for labor and worker protections in general.
Speaking of those worker protections: As a concession, Prop 22 will grant some benefits, including a minimum earnings guarantee when a driver is engaged in a delivery or ride (not while they are waiting for a gig). However, Prop. 22 offers no protections to workers in terms of sick leave, unemployment, workers comp or the ability to unionize.
This lack of protections was a major grief back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic came Stateside. As one gig worker said at the time, “staying home won’t pay the bills,” even if making deliveries meant potentially spreading the virus or working while sick. That’s no less a catch-22 for gig workers now, with COVID-19 cases breaking record highs as we speak and many expecting the situation to worsen as we get closer to winter.
Early in the pandemic, DoorDash, Grubhub, and Postmates set up financial assistance funds for workers diagnosed or quarantined because of COVID-19. However, those were short-term measures, and there is no guarantee these companies will offer a similar option if the situation around the pandemic worsens.
Looking ahead, does Prop. 22’s success this week embolden these third-party delivery services to continue their dominance over the future of food delivery? Will the deep pockets of Uber, DoorDash and others get to set the terms for what the delivery market becomes? After all, these companies haven’t exactly been beacons of trustworthy behavior. Do their policies get to become the long-term norm simply because they have more money to fight with?
Consider the commission fees restaurants must pay delivery services in order to use their platforms. These fees can reach as high as 30 percent per transaction and have been an ongoing source of grief since before the pandemic, eating into restaurants’ practically nonexistent margins. Right now, multiple cities across the U.S. have imposed mandatory caps on these fees for the duration of the pandemic. But those emergency measures won’t stay in place forever. And even were fee caps signed into law, it’s not unreasonable to assume delivery services would eventually fight them, via another ballot measure or some other means.
Above all else, Prop. 22’s success shows us that Uber, DoorDash, and the rest of them are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep their existing business model — and therefore chances of profitability — intact. That Prop. 22 passed also shows that figuratively kicking and screaming, if accompanied by millions, can get you your own way. Given the untrustworthy history of these tech companies, that point doesn’t bode other areas of delivery that regulators and restaurant industry advocates are working to change.