On Oct. 5, the San Francisco Department of Elections sent out its final batch of mail-in ballots. San Franciscans registered to vote by mail received a 232 page packet describing each of the candidates and ballot propositions included in what’s expected to be a historic election. 

A number of these races will have an immediate impact on the lives of Californians in the months to come. But unlike political candidates, there are no debates for the dozen statewide propositions to clarify what checking the box next to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ actually means. 

Through the company-sponsored ballot measure Proposition 22, rideshare and delivery drivers become subject to their company’s labor and wage policies, as they would remain independent contractors. AB5, passed in 2019, presented these gig workers with an opportunity to receive the more robust benefits offered only to those with an employee status, such as health insurance, sick leave, and workers compensation.

In an interview with El Tecolote, Christopher Christensen, local labor rights activist and Legislative Committee Rep for ILWU Local 34, called Prop 22 “an attack on decades of work on behalf of labor activists.” He explained that AB5 was the culmination of a long fight for workers. 

“Without AB5, these people would not be afforded certain fundamental choices; as employees, rather than independent contractors, they incur worker rights,” said Christensen. “They have the opportunity to receive a steady base income for what it is they do. They get to decide whether they want healthcare, have the ability to organize, and a number of other benefits they would otherwise be robbed of.”

AB5 made companies like Lyft, Uber, Postmates, Doordash, and Instacart responsible to their drivers by requiring that the company classify them as employees rather than independent contractors. This reclassification subjects Uber and Lyft to higher taxes, which the companies formerly avoided with their drivers as independent contractors. When the bill passed, these app-based companies immediately sought exceptions for AB5 from a federal judge in hopes of dodging these taxes. When these exceptions were denied, Uber and Lyft moved forward with crafting a proposition that would create a loophole for them.

While other gig workers like freelance writers have been granted some flexibility with regard to AB5’s specific laws, many of the state’s legal leaders agree that ride-share and delivery apps owe the state and their employees much more. On May 5, 2020, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft for their refusal to comply with AB5 and classify their drivers as employees. Becerra cited the mounting importance of providing drivers with the benefits denied them in years past. Cities across the state followed suit. San Francisco’s own District Attorney Chesa Boudin opened a case against Doordash in August.

Uber released a statement shortly after the announcement of the Attorney General’s lawsuit, explaining the company’s plans to move forward in court while simultaneously “pushing to raise the standard of independent work for drivers in California, including with guaranteed minimum earnings and new benefits.” Many labor activists and drivers remain skeptical that Uber and Lyft would live up to this promise if granted an exception to AB5 via Prop 22.

Members of the rideshare driver group We Drive Progress give away PPE and do voter outreach to drivers in San Francisco at Fell and Octavia streets. Cortesía: Andrew Baker, SEIU 1021

In an interview with El Tecolote, Supervisor Aaron Peskin explained why he has come forward as a staunch opponent of Prop 22. “Billionaire-backed tech companies have put more money into this proposition than any ballot initiative in U.S. history because their entire business model is based on worker exploitation,” Peskin said, urging San Franciscans to vote No on 22. “It’s mind boggling that instead of paying their employees they would spend 180 million dollars on a proposition. Just imagine what that amount of money could solve here. These people are megalomaniacs.” 

Hector Castellanos, who has worked as a full-time driver with Uber and Lyft for six years also opposes Prop 22. He explained that Uber continues to exploit their workers for the purposes of their campaign. He described how he can’t even do his job without being inundated with advertisements to support the company’s proposition. Each time he refreshes the app for a new rider he must respond to a message that says, “Prop 22 will provide guaranteed earnings and a healthcare stipend.” 

“It is misleading and feels threatening,” he said of the message where drivers only options to continue require either selecting “Ok” or “Yes on 22.”  

AB-5—if enforced for rideshare apps—gives even more than that to drivers, Castellanos explained. It gives drivers the benefits they actually need. Three years ago, Castellanos was in an accident while working where he was not at fault. Yet, Lyft offered no help. When his new car was totaled, his insurance through the company sent a check for less than 10 percent of the car’s worth. After a surgery related to the accident, Castellanos was forced to take six months off driving. Because Lyft provided no support with his medical expenses and leave, his daughter, a college freshman at the time, decided to leave school for the year to help her father. “Seeing my daughter drop out of school was the saddest part of all of this for me, so I was so happy when AB5 was passing; it felt like finally we would have some security.” 

In order to protect that sense of security, Castellanos attends protests with the rideshare driver group We Drive Progress encouraging people to vote NO on 22. He explained how drivers have started to accept these working conditions as their normal, even as their pay continues to decrease. “Right now I spend 12 to 14 hours a day working, and my paycheck amounts to about $3, maybe $4 an hour if I’m lucky,” Castellanos said. 

Another driver, Karla Reyes, said she and her husband have both driven Uber and Lyft since 2014. Like Castellanos, they also experienced cuts in their percentage of the ride profit. Even prior to the pandemic her husband worked 70-80 hours a week. Reyes, who stopped driving on March 13, is now reevaluating whether she will return to a job. “I enjoy the work, getting to talk to so many different people. Taking time off was a difficult decision but one I had to make for my health, and now if Proposition 22 passes, I won’t go back.” 

Reyes remains hopeful and encourages her fellow drivers to prioritize their personal worth over the perks of the job by voting No on 22. “We work to live, not to be exploited.”

Referring to Uber’s argument surrounding the flexibility of independent contractor status, Reyes explained that flexibility means very little when you are replaceable to a large company. “It is flexible and it is convenient working from home and caring for my family. But we have to remember that these companies will always earn more. If I go back, I’ll know my worth.” 

JUUL’s Proposition C last year and now Uber’s Proposition 22 have taught San Franciscans more than ever to be skeptical of what it is they read on their ballot and to do their research before making a final decision on which box to check.