At a Tuesday press conference at Uber headquarters, rideshare drivers alleged that Uber and Lyft are sending them deceptive political communications, urging drivers to support the companies’ legislative agenda in Sacramento. Uber sent its drivers an in-app notification asking them to sign a petition with a pre-written message that they could add to and send to their legislators.

Uber and Lyft have been pushing for legislation that would protect them from a 2018 California Supreme Court decision ruling that delivery drivers for a company called Dynamex were employees, and not independent contractors, as Uber and Lyft current classify their drivers. The ruling also introduced a three-part test to determine whether workers should be considered employees or independent contractors.

A bill inspired by that court decision, AB5, introduced in December by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), would turn that decision into California law — making it harder for rideshare outfits and other companies to classify their workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Uber spokesperson Davis White said the company is at work on an alternative bill.

The drivers at the 1455 Market St. press conference held signs saying “AB5 Protects Drivers” and “Yes AB5.” They said that being considered employees of Uber or Lyft would help improve their wages and benefits. “We deserve a living wage. We deserve benefits. We deserve transparency. We deserve a voice at work,” said Rebecca Stack-Martinez, a driver organizing with an advocacy group called Gig Workers Rising.

One driver from San Francisco, Al Aloudi, who has been driving for Uber and Lyft for about seven years, said the message he sent supporting Lyft’s legislative agenda was an accident. “I took the action by mistake because I didn’t know what it was for,” he said. After talking about it with other drivers, he refused to sign the petition for Uber.

Aloudi said he clicked through the message without reading because it was presented in the same manner as other communiques the companies make him sign, like new terms of service, or other paperwork that he has to consent to before he can log in and use the app.

Uber drivers recently received this message via the app they use to access the system and drive. It requested drivers to sign a petition which would then be sent to state legislators. Photo by Eric Murphy.

Lyft spokesperson CJ Macklin denied that Lyft’s similar effort was a “petition” and said there was no pre-written text in the message field.

Though Aloudi mistakenly took action through Lyft, he says he actually supports AB5, in contrast to the rideshare companies’ legislative agenda, because it will offer him wage protections that don’t currently apply. Aloudi’s Uber app showed that he had made $63.61 on a recent day driving in San Francisco when his app was activated for 7.5 hours, meaning he made about $8.50 per hour. “With AB5, I can have minimum wage for that,” said Aloudi.

If Aloudi had been considered an employee, he would have to be paid San Francisco’s minimum wage of $15 an hour. That comes out to $112.50 for that day of work — nearly twice as much.

He says his low pay is in part due to the lack of available rides for him to pick up — because of the high volume of rideshare drivers in San Francisco. Aloudi is not guaranteed a minimum number of rides or a certain wage for a day’s work. On one particularly bad day, Aloudi showed he was only able to take a single ride worth about $18 while his app was activated for more than 5 hours. Multiple drivers also mentioned that Uber and Lyft had cut the portion of fares that goes to drivers in recent years.

Jay Wierenga of the California Fair Political Practices Commission says the money Uber and Lyft spent on the in-app messages drivers received will be tracked as a lobbying expense. “It’s really not that different than, say, SEIU urging its members to contact legislators on particular bills,” said Wierenga.

Veena Dubal, a professor of law at UC Hastings, said that it is legal for employers to tell employees that they support or oppose legislation, and calls the practice that Uber and Lyft used “clicktivism.”

“This is an augmented power that app companies have to put words in the mouths of drivers,” said Dubal. When Aloudi clicked through the notice Uber sent him, it auto-filled a message that he was able to add to.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez, who introduced AB5, had harsh words for the rideshare companies. “Uber and Lyft need to stop lying to their drivers. Nothing in AB 5 would prevent employees from working with multiple apps or hamper their flexible schedules – only Uber and Lyft can do that,” she said in a statement.

Disclosure forms from both Uber and Lyft show both companies have lobbied on AB5 in 2019. White, the Uber spokesperson, says that the bill is listed in their disclosure form only because the company “referenced the bill in our work answering questions and advocating for an alternative.”

Combined, the two companies spent a total of about $336,700 on lobbying in the first quarter of 2019.