Two former Uber and Lyft drivers based in Austin, Texas, have filed two new proposed class-action lawsuits against those ridesharing companies on Thursday.
The drivers allege that they are owed up to 60 days of back pay and other benefits that would be afforded to them as ex-employees under a federal labor law. One case involved driver Todd Johnston taking on Uber; the other involves driver David Thornton taking on Lyft.
These cases, like so many others before it, boil down to whether the drivers are employees or simply independent contractors.
If a court were to find that the drivers are employees, Uber’s and Lyft’s bottom line would be significantly impacted as the companies would have to provide health care and many other benefits.The Austin plaintiffs’ cases, which were filed by the same law firm, center on a federal law known as the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act of 1988, which requires companies with more than 100 employees to provide written 60 day notice of any mass layoffs.
Over a month ago, Uber and Lyft ceased operations in Austin after the city required drivers to submit to a fingerprinting-based background check.
The two companies’ approximately 10,000 drivers were then immediately without work. Uber and Lyft banded together and lobbied hard to get the city ordinance reversed by popular vote, but that effort failed.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment. Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman, e-mailed Ars: “We are not commenting.”
An uphill battle?
The lawsuits, Johnston v. Uber and Thornton v. Lyft, were filed in San Francisco federal court.
In the suits, the plaintiffs argue that they and all the other former drivers in the Texas state capital who drove between May 2013 and May 2016 should be considered employees and are therefore owed back pay and related health benefits.
Johnston states in the complaint that he primarily drove passengers between downtown Austin and the Austin airport, had a rating of 4.88, and “had not been deactivated or threatened with deactivation by Uber at any point.” Similarly, Thornton had a rating of 4.5 and had not been threatened with deactivation, either.
A related case ongoing in the same federal court, O’Connor v. Uber, has reached a pending $100 million settlement.
If that action is approved, however, it would sidestep the crux of the employment issue.
Michael Leroy, a labor law professor at the University of Illinois, e-mailed Ars to say he felt this case was “insignificant” and that the plaintiffs had an uphill battle.
“Even if Uber concedes that drivers are employees—and they won’t—WARN Act has a major ‘out’ for employers who close a business or lay-off workers due to unforeseen business circumstances,” he wrote. “Losing an election would clearly fall into the unforeseen business circumstances category.
If this lawsuit is without merit, it has potential to take the spotlight off the more significant lawsuits against Uber and related firms.”