Drivers share their stories, showing what makes AB 5 so controversial
There were just a couple months until Christmas and Jeff Parry had been saving up.
With two young daughters, the Uber driver had been planning ahead. That’s when the app — on which Parry relies for all of his income — unexpectedly deactivated his account, citing a sudden change in his clean-driver record.
A glitch in the system had produced the error, but it would take more than a week to fix. No amount of waiting on hold, trips to the DMV for proof of his history, or pleas with Uber representatives could get him back on the road, and Parry said no one seemed to care.
“It’s their error, but I am the one eating it,” he said. “You do all the right things to put yourself in the right spot financially and then someone else’s error wipes it out. That really bothered me,” he added, “especially because their concern for it was nonexistent.”
That was almost exactly one year ago.
The issue prompted Parry to push back against the company, and now he’s leading an organizing effort to rally lawmakers in California as they consider a controversial bill, AB 5, which would reclassify more than a million independent contractors across industries as employees, and enable drivers to form a union.
“It turned me from being a driver who just puts his head down and says, ya know, we will just motor through this, to deciding, no, something has to be done about this,” Parry said. He’s been a driver since 2015, and started back when the pay was better. Over the years, when his car called it quits, he bought a new one with continuing this work in mind. Then the pay changed.
“You have already made this investment, and now you have the vehicle, and you bought your vehicle with driving in mind specifically,” he said. “Then they are saying that [lower pay] is just on the rush for market share. They make you think you are helping build this thing. The emails basically said, while we are building this we just gotta tighten our belts a little bit,” he added. “But the erosion never stops.”
With support from Gig Workers Rising and Mobile Workers Alliance, two organizations working to unionize workers in the tech sector, Parry joined roughly 100 other drivers on Monday, who chanted and waved signs as they marched through the California capital building, calling for AB 5 to pass.
More: What is California’s AB 5? The bill could make gig economy workers like Uber drivers employees
Because they aren’t classified as employees, gig-workers aren’t protected by most labor laws and aren’t guaranteed minimum wage. As independent contractors they are expected to pay both shares of payroll taxes, aren’t given overtime or paid time off, and don’t have access to most benefits. Many drivers have joined the movement because they don’t feel like they have a voice at the companies they work for. Advocates of the bill are hoping to change that, closing a worker-misclassification loophole that has been an issue for years.
The legislation, expected to land on the governor’s desk before the end of the session this month, has created an existential crisis for on-demand app companies, including rideshares like Uber and Lyft, that built their business models on independent workers.
Some fight against changes
Many industries will be affected, and have been lobbying lawmakers for carve-outs that would allow them to evade the new tightened definitions of which workers can remain independent. Lyft, Uber, and other tech companies have been among the most visible in their pushback against the bill, and have already invested a collective $90 million in bringing it to the ballot box as a proposition if AB 5 passes.
They also have created a platform for drivers against the legislation to lobby lawmakers.
An hour before the pro-union event, just outside on the capitol steps, a counter-rally was held for drivers hoping to voice their opposition to the bill. Sponsored by a California Chamber of Commerce funded group called the I’m Independent Coalition, a small contingent of workers took to the microphone to share their fears that AB 5 would limit their freedom and flexibility — a core attraction of the work.
For Jermaine Brown, who spent eight years working in the corporate world as a manger for a rental car company, the app enabled him to be more present in his kids’ lives. The father of three signed on to drive for Lyft to have a more flexible schedule, and he is worried if AB 5 passes, that all could change.
His daughter, the eldest at 13, is in middle school. He’s also got sons who are 8 and 4. Over the past year that he’s driven for Lyft, he said he’s been able to make it to their soccer games, their ballet performances, and watch football practice.
“They grow up and you only get those few moments to cherish with them. I missed a lot of that because I was a manager putting those long hours,” he said. “Everything I used to miss I am able to give back now because I have the schedule flexibility. That was the primary reason why I chose the Lyft format.”
Brown added that he’s had mostly a good experience, but he is all for drivers having a stronger voice at the company. Still, he’s advocating against the change that could allow them to unionize. Recruited by the company to share his story after he posted it on the platform, he said he volunteered with the campaign to preserve the status quo.
“If it passes it will impact me a lot,” he said. “The opposite side says I can still get a flexible schedule, but I don’t believe that,” he adds. “If this passes it will be detrimental to me, and to my family. It is not why I signed up for Lyft.”
The conflicting narratives have highlighted how complicated AB 5 is, and has cast uncertainty over how exactly it will be implemented. Meanwhile, on the streets outside, many more drivers are waiting to find out what their future holds.
Uncertain future scary to some
David, who didn’t want to give his last name, said he’s not going to campaign for either side, because he sees it both ways. He loves his work, especially getting to meet different kinds of people every day. But he’s had his share of issues working for Lyft over the last two years.
“You are used to making a certain amount of money and then suddenly you are making less,” he said. “Right now, Uber and Lyft can do whatever they want. With the new deal that they want to do, it kind of helps the drivers because if Lyft or Uber decides to throw more shenanigans in, at least they got someone to defend them,” he said.
But, many drivers still have concerns that things will get worse instead of better.
“I think Lyft and Uber is putting it out there that, if this happens, this is going to change everything,” David said. “Drivers are scared because all this is happening.”
Adrian Bourgeois, a musician who drives part-time, typically giving rides in the Los Angeles area, said he is against the bill based on what he’s heard.
“The best part about being an Uber/Lyft driver is the flexibility of hours and being about to work or not work whenever I want to,” he said.
While he agrees that driving doesn’t pay enough money to raise a family on, he sees it as an important supplement to achieving other aims.
“It helps that LA is one of the busier cities in the world,” he said. “But it’s the gig nature of the job that appeals to so many people in that town who may be pursuing other gigs and endeavors and using Uber as a means to get them through.”
That’s something Parry said he hopes will be preserved. He sees the threats to the work as scare tactics from companies concerned about costs. After all, he said, he loves being a driver.
“You meet people you would never run into in the normal course of life, and the ability to make some on-demand extra cash is life changing.” But he’s worried if the industry isn’t fixed now, it will cement a future based on exploitation. Even if the business model has to condense to make the change, he thinks it will be worth it.
“I see the potential of it being applied to other industries and this could be a major employment model in the future. If this is allowed to become an exploitive model, well, that doesn’t work for my daughters. I don’t want them to be passed that future.”