Liss-Riordan has been dubbed Uber’s archnemesis for overseeing a series of challenges to the company’s labor policies. Most notably she represented drivers in California and Massachusetts in a case settled in 2019, where Uber agreed to pay $20 million to drivers who said they were misclassified, but the company did not change its policies.
In the New York class-action complaint, filed Nov. 3, Liss-Riordan said the workers should be considered employees under existing state law.
“We are seeking injunctive relief that they properly classify their drivers, as well as restitution for past damages,” Liss-Riordan said by phone.
Uber filed a month later for a stay in the legal challenge, asking the judge to rule that the dispute belonged in private arbirtation.
The lawsuit was prompted by a New York state Court of Appeals ruling in March, Liss-Riordan said, that declared Postmates delivery workers were employees and entitled to unemployment benefits. A state Supreme Court justice ruled in a separate case in July that the state Department of Labor had wrongly denied standard unemployment insurance to Uber and Lyft drivers
The complaint was filed the same day that California voters approved Proposition 22, allowing Uber and Lyft to continue to classify workers as independent contractors rather than as employees.
Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart spent $200 million lobbying in favor of Prop 22, which negates a state law that classified most gig workers as employees. While the companies have long argued that independent contractor status allows its employees flexibilities, labor groups say it unfairly blocks workers from basic protections and health care.
Drivers have since filed suit in California to block the change, but Uber has pledged to “loudly advocate” for laws similar to Prop 22 elsewhere. The law provides some benefits, including health care, while it still maintains workers are independent.
This session of the New York Legislature is expected to review how to classify gig workers, such as those for app-based companies Uber, Lyft and Doordash.
State Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island, told Crain’s after the Prop 22 vote that lawmakers in Albany have been meeting with gig companies and labor groups to frame a new bill that provides protections for app-based workers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the gig economy a “fraud” in his 2020 State of the State address and said its workers should not be considered independent contractors. Efforts to pass legislation changed the industry stalled during the spring as the pandemic took hold of the state. Cuomo did not broach the issue in two State of the State speeches this week.
“There are a lot of eyes across the country watching what will happen in other states,” Liss-Riordan said. “Uber and other gig economy workers feel emboldened by what they pulled off in California.”
Uber has until Jan. 25 to respond to the drivers’ filing and further its case to shift the dispute to arbitration. The company declined to comment on the case Tuesday.