As gig corporations and supporters pour in nearly $200 million to support California Proposition 22, the measure is generating a fierce debate — among the public and among ride-sharing drivers themselves.

Prop. 22 was born out of opposition to California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), which was signed in September 2019 and requires app-based companies to reclassify independent contractors as employees, offering them such benefits as overtime pay, health care and unemployment insurance.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash were early forces behind Prop. 22, and support for the measure from other app-based companies such as Instacart and Postmates has grown in recent months.  

The opposing views of two women ride-sharing drivers help to illustrate what’s at stake in the measure.

Noemi Torres, who spent six years driving for Uber and Lyft, was hospitalized for three weeks earlier this year with the coronavirus. She says drivers need the benefits that come with being an employee. (Photo courtesy of Noemi Torres)

Noemi Torres, a mother and former full-time Uber and Lyft employee, said her recent experience with COVID-19 underscored the need for employee protections under AB 5. 

“It just put things into perspective for me. … I wasn’t able to pay my rent for months because even though I had applied for unemployment, I didn’t qualify,” Torres said. 

But Daisy Mercado, a full-time student who drives part time, said she believes Prop. 22 will help ensure the flexibility she needs.

“Being able to [work] in between classes, or on my way to or from school, was really the only time that I could work,” she said.

Torres, who spent six years driving for the ride-hailing services, was hospitalized for three weeks earlier this year with the coronavirus. She says drivers need the benefits that come with being an employee. Otherwise, getting sick isn’t an option, especially for those drivers who rely heavily on the income they get from driving.

Torres’ own experience with illness contributed to her becoming a spokesperson for Gig Workers Rising.  That group, as stated on their website, “is a campaign supporting and educating app and platform workers who are organizing for better wages, working conditions, and respect.”

Ken Jacobs of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley)

Torres’ views get support from organized labor and Ken Jacobs, a labor specialist who chairs the Labor Center at UC Berkeley. He says Prop. 22 would be harmful to drivers.

“Proposition 22 would take away drivers’ rights to basic legal protections and legally required benefits, including minimum wage, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, overtime and workers’ compensation insurance should a driver be injured on the job,” Jacobs said.

Mercado, however, sees things very differently. A 26-year-old student at Western State College of Law in Irvine, she drives 10-15 hours a week for Postmates and Instacart, working out of Riverside and Orange County. She argues flexibility far outweighs the need for benefits.

“Being able to [work] in between classes, or on my way to or from school, was really the only time that I could work,” Mercado said. “That flexibility let me get some income without having a fixed schedule that, really, was impossible with my school.” 

Daisy Mercado, a full-time student, says she likes “being able to [work] in between classes, or on my way to or from school.” (Photo courtesy of Daisy Mercado)
In addition to such flexibility, Mercado says the immediacy of payments by app-based companies she works for are much better than biweekly or monthly paychecks. 

Mercado’s position finds support from another academic researcher, Christopher Thornberg, who directs the UC Riverside School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development.

In a research paper analyzing app-based driver earnings, Thornberg wrote: “A cashier, although on the clock, is under the control of the employer. He or she cannot leave the store or engage in any activity at liberty. This is not the case for an app-based driver (who) could choose to leave the app on while running errands, for example. An app-based driver could also have multiple driving apps activated and pick rides from across the platforms. … By contrast, a cashier cannot walk across the road during a paid shift and work for another supermarket.”

The same argument is made by the employers.

An article appearing in a September issue of Uber’s official publication, “Update on AB5,” said: “Today, drivers have control over when, where, and how they work. They can choose to work for any of our competitors at the same time, and many do.”

Christopher Thornberg of UC Riverside. (Photo courtesy of UCR)

Writing in a “New York Times” op-ed on Aug. 10, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi warned the company would reduce its workforce if Prop. 22 fails: “Uber would only have full-time jobs for a small fraction of our current drivers and only be able to operate in many fewer cities than today. Rides would be more expensive, which would significantly reduce the number of rides people could take and, in turn, the number of drivers needed to provide those trips.”

Torres, however, is unconvinced by the company’s arguments. She reports that her bills began to pile up during the time she was sick, mainly because she was categorized as an independent contractor and couldn’t receive unemployment benefits. It wasn’t until the CARES Act passed, which temporarily changed the policies because of the coronavirus pandemic, that Torres was able to qualify for unemployment. 

The process took so long Torres said she lost her car because she couldn’t pay for it, had to apply for food stamps and a grant that helps those in risk of losing their homes. 

She is currently waiting to hear back about the grant and still hasn’t caught up on her rent. 


Prop. 22 at a glance

A “YES” vote on Prop. 22 would continue to classify app-based drivers as independent contractors and not employees. Under Prop. 22, drivers would get narrower benefits than under the state law, AB 5, but would be paid at least 120% of minimum wage, and receive some health care subsidies and accident insurance.

A “NO” vote on Prop. 22 would mean that AB 5 would apply with app-based drivers classified as employees. Under AB 5, Uber and Lyft would have to cover typical employee benefits and protections such as: minimum wage, sick hours, unemployment insurance, overtime and other common employee benefits. 

Yes: https://yeson22.com/

No: https://nooncaprop22.com/ 

Guides presenting both sides: https://calmatters.org/election-2020-guide/proposition-22-gig-workers-ab-5/

https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_22,_App-Based_Drivers_as_Contractors_and_Labor_Policies_Initiative_(2020) 


* For more information on the California elections, visit the state website.