Uber, Lyft rebuffed in drivers as contractors bid

Uber protestors have marched through Cape Town city centre. (Dane McDonald, Fin24)
Uber protestors have marched through Cape Town city centre. (Dane McDonald, Fin24)

San Francisco - Ride hailing apps Uber and Lyft failed to persuade separate US judges on Wednesday to rule that their drivers are independent contractors instead of employees, in cases that have wide implications for Silicon Valley "sharing economy" firms.

US District Judges Edward Chen and Vince Chhabria in San Francisco federal court said in two rulings that juries would have to determine the status of each companies' drivers.

Uber and Lyft face separate lawsuits seeking class action status in San Francisco, brought on behalf of drivers who contend they are employees and entitled to reimbursement for expenses, including gas and vehicle maintenance. The drivers currently pay those costs themselves.

An ultimate finding against the two biggest car-ride services could significantly raise their costs beyond the lawsuits' scope and force them to pay Social Security, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance.

That could in turn affect the valuations of not just Lyft and Uber but also other start-ups that rely on large networks of privately contracted individuals to provide rides, clean houses and the like.

Employees vs contractors

Uber, Lyft and lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comments on the ruling.

Uber has raised more than $4bn from prominent venture capital firms such as Benchmark and Google Ventures, valuing the company at $40bn and making it the most valuable US start-up. Lyft has raised $331m from Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund and other investors.

In Wednesday's ruling, Chhabria acknowledged the difficulty of parsing the status of Lyft's drivers, who share common characteristics with both full-time employees and contractors.

"The jury in this case will be handed a square peg and asked to choose between two round holes," the judge wrote.

"California's outmoded test for classifying workers will apply in cases like this. And because the test provides nothing remotely close to a clear answer, it will often be for juries to decide."

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