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California’s gig worker law is unconstitutional, judge rules

A California law that ensures gig workers are considered independent contractors, while affording them some limited benefits, is unconstitutional and unenforceable, a California Superior Court judge ruled today.

The decision is not likely to immediately affect the new law and is certain to face appeals from Uber and other so-called gig economy companies. It reopened the debate about whether drivers for ride-hailing services and delivery couriers are employees who deserve full benefits, or independent contractors who are responsible for their own businesses and benefits.

Last year’s Proposition 22, a ballot initiative backed by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy companies, carved out a third classification for workers, granting gig workers limited benefits while preventing them from being considered employees of the tech giants. The initiative was approved in November with more than 58% of the vote.

But drivers and the Service Employees International Union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The group argued that Proposition 22 was unconstitutional because it limited the state Legislature’s ability to allow workers to organize and have access to workers’ compensation.

The law also requires a seven-eighths majority for the Legislature to pass any amendments to Proposition 22, a supermajority that was viewed as all but impossible to achieve.

Judge Frank Roesch said in his ruling that Proposition 22 violated California’s constitution because it restricted the Legislature from making gig workers eligible for workers’ compensation.

“The entirety of Proposition 22 is unenforceable,” he wrote, creating fresh legal upheaval in the long battle over the employment rights of gig workers.

“I think the judge made a very sound decision in finding that Prop 22 is unconstitutional because it had some unusual provisions in it,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law who studies the gig economy. “It was written in such a comprehensive way to prevent the workers from having access to any rights that the Legislature decided.”

Scott Kronland, a lawyer for the drivers, praised Roesch’s decision. “Our position is that he’s exactly right and that his ruling is going to be upheld on appeal,” Kronland said.

But the gig economy companies argued that the judge had erred by “ignoring a century’s worth of case law requiring the courts to guard the voters’ right of initiative,” said Geoff Vetter, a spokesperson for the Protect App-Based Drivers & Services Coalition, a group that represents gig platforms.

An Uber spokesperson said the ruling ignored the majority of California voters who supported Proposition 22. “We will appeal, and we expect to win,” the spokesperson, Noah Edwardsen, said. “Meanwhile, Prop 22 remains in effect, including all of the protections and benefits it provides independent workers across the state.”

Uber and other gig economy companies are pursuing similar legislation in Massachusetts. This month, a coalition of companies filed a ballot proposal that could allow voters in the state to decide next year whether gig workers should be considered independent contractors.

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