Appeals court grants Uber and Lyft an extension after threat to leave California

Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. have won a temporary extension from a California appeals court in a case about whether the companies' drivers should be considered employees or independent contractors.

Case centres on whether or not ride hailing drivers should be considered employees or contractors

Uber and Lyft have long argued that drivers aren't employees and should instead be considered more like independent contractors. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

A California appeals court on Thursday halted a court order that would have forced Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. to treat their drivers as employees, rather than independent contractors beginning Friday.

The court's decision prevents a looming shutdown of Uber's and Lyft's ride-hail services in California. The companies had said they would be unable to comply with a new law that would consider their drivers employees entitled to benefits such as minimum wage, overtime and sick pay and unemployment insurance.

In a blog post published prior to the decision, Lyft said on Thursday said it would have suspended its California operations at midnight.

"What ... politicians are pushing is an employment model that four out of five drivers don't support," the blog post said. "This change would also necessitate an overhaul of the entire business model — it's not a switch that can be flipped overnight."

In its own blog post, Uber said it would have to temporarily shut down unless the appeals court intervened.

Lyft shares dropped 6.2 per cent to $26.41 US, while Uber shares were down 2.3 per cent to $28.74 US.

The companies have sought the intervention of an appeals court to block an injunction order issued by a judge last week.

That ruling forced the companies to treat their drivers as employees starting Thursday after midnight. Uber and Lyft have said it would take them months to implement the mandate.

War of words

The threat to suspend service in the most populous U.S. state marks an unprecedented escalation in a long-running fight between U.S. regulators, labour groups and gig economy companies that have upended traditional employment models.

California, a state frequently seen as a leader in establishing policies that are later adopted by other states, in January implemented a new law that makes it difficult for gig companies to classify workers as independent contractors.

A judge on Aug. 10 ruled that Uber and Lyft had to comply with the law beginning on Friday, forcing them to treat their ride service drivers as employees entitled to benefits including minimum wage, sick pay and unemployment insurance.

Uber's fast-growing food delivery business Uber Eats is not impacted by the shutdown, the company has said. Other gig economy companies, including DoorDash and Instacart, will also be able to continue operating under the contractor model.

The shutdown comes at a time when demand for rides has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, with California among the U.S. states with the slowest recovery, according to the companies.

Both Uber and Lyft were founded in California and the state still makes up a disproportionate share of their customers bases. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

California represents nine per cent of Uber's global rides and Uber Eats' gross bookings, but a negligible amount of adjusted earnings, Uber said in November.

Lyft does not have a food delivery business and last week said California makes up some 16 per cent of total rides.

Uber and Lyft say the vast majority of their drivers do not want to be employees. The companies say their flexible on-demand business model is not compatible with traditional employment law and advocate for what they call a "third way" between employment and contractor status.

Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates are spending more than $110 million to support a November ballot measure in California, Proposition 22, that would enshrine their "third way" proposal and overwrite the state's gig worker bill.

Labour groups reject the companies' claims that current employment laws are not compatible with flexible work schedules and argue the companies should play by the same rules as other businesses. They say the ballot measure would create a new underclass of workers with fewer rights and protections.

An Aug. 9 poll among Californians by Refield & Wilton showed 41 per cent of voters planned to support the companies' proposal and 26 per cent opposed it, with the remainder still undecided.