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California Bill Would Let Rideshare Drivers, Others Organize

Above: An Uber driver returns to his car at the San Diego International Airport after helping a departing traveller unload his luggage in this undated photo.

Aired 3/14/16 on KPBS Midday Edition.

California Bill Would Let Rideshare Drivers, Others Organize


Megan Burks, City Heights reporter, KPBS


Aired 3/14/16 on KPBS News.

San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced the bill and said it goes beyond the "gig economy." San Diego's taxi industry and others could also be affected.

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Assembly Bill 1727

Assembly Bill 1727

A draft of Assembly Bill 1727, as amended on March 9, 2016.

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Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has introduced a bill that would open the door to collective bargaining for independent contractors. The bill seems to aim squarely at mobile app companies like Uber, but more industries could be affected.

The bill would allow 10 or more workers to negotiate as a group with their hosting platform. Here, hosting platform essentially means "middleman."

Gonzalez said it could be a mobile app company connecting drivers and passengers, a traditional taxi service dispatching cabs, or even a janitorial company deploying cleaning crews.

The San Diego Democrat said the bill, co-authored with state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, would not mean new regulations for burgeoning tech companies, but it would give a growing class of workers more protection.

"That's what we're trying to do here — a free market approach of letting these workers get together and have a conversation and a negotiation with the business so that they can leverage power and not each treated individually and basically told, 'This is the way it is or take a walk,'" said Gonzalez, who headed the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council before being elected to the Legislature.

Susan Bisom-Rapp is a labor law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and studies the so-called "gig economy."

"I don't think it's just Assemblywoman Gonzalez grandstanding for collective bargaining rights at all," Bisom-Rapp said. "Work is changing pretty radically in the 21st century and the law hasn't caught up."

She said there is no official count of independent contractors in the gig economy, but employers are increasingly turning to contract employees.

"I can tell you that has significant ramifications," Bisom-Rapp said. "If you hire your workforce as contractors, you're essentially deregulating your workforce."

She said independent contractors are not subject to the federal or state minimum wage, overtime regulations, the Occupational Safety and Health Law and employment discrimination laws. They also can't collect unemployment benefits.

"Certainly there is a younger generation of people who are interested in gig economy jobs, but that doesn't mean that the lack of security — financial and otherwise — is something that they're happy to cope with. In fact, a survey found quite a bit of dissatisfaction with working conditions," Bisom-Rapp said.

She's referring to a first-of-its-kind survey by the United Nations' International Labour Organization last year that sought to shed light on new employment relationships.

Uber did not respond to a request for comment on Gonzalez's bill. Company officials previously have said its workers prefer the flexibility their employment status affords.

A spokesman for the Internet Association, a lobbying group for Uber and other internet-based companies, told the Los Angeles Times the bill would hurt their industry and, in turn, its workers.

The federal labor board does not allow independent contractors to join unions. If the bill passes, it would create a new kind of bargaining unit recognized only in California. The setup would further differ by not requiring employees to secure a majority before negotiating.

The bill will be heard in the Assembly's labor committee in the coming weeks. Gonzalez said she anticipates and welcomes amendments to the bill. She said she doesn't want to encumber start-ups nor pass legislation that's overly broad.

California lawmakers have been hesitant to clamp down on mobile app companies, most notably resisting calls to regulate rideshare services as taxi companies.

And Gonzalez's bill could face another hurdle. The Los Angeles Times reported state Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, whose family owns USA Cab in San Diego, has blocked at least two bills related to transportation companies from his post as chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.

Still, Bisom-Rapp said Gonzalez's bill is a good — and necessary — start.

"I think she's contributing to a conversation, even if it takes years to get this legislation passed," she said. "Ultimately, to accomplish everything we need to accomplish for the 21st century economy, we're going to have to have a certain amount of coordination. Otherwise, you're going to have a disjointed, incremental approach that is sort of like a fabric that has holes in it. When there are holes in it, those who are most vulnerable slip through."

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