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Should Uber and Lyft treat their drivers as employees? That question is dividing the Democratic Party and becoming a litmus test for 2020 presidential candidates on how they see the future of work.
Several candidates including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg cheered on the California Senate as it passed a bill late Tuesday that could convert thousands of contract workers in the state to full-time employees, who receive benefits and wage protections. The high-profile state bill could give them ammunition in tonight's primary debate as they address economic inequality -- an issue amplified by drivers' protests across the country.
Sanders, for his part, wants the protections in the bill known as AB5 enshrined in federal law. “Sen. Sanders... is pleased that the California legislature stood up to reject a reality in which a tiny handful of Americans become extraordinarily wealthy by paying their workers starvation wages,” Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca said. “For too long, so-called 'gig economy' workers across the country were denied a living wage, the right to organize, and basic workplace protections. The war against the working class, fueled by the greed and corruption of the corporate elite, will end when Sen. Sanders is in the White House.”
This is excellent news for Uber and Lyft drivers—and for every employee who has been misclassified as an "independent contractor" by their employer. Now let's keep up the fight for full employee status for workers across the country. https://t.co/HguIsTLhrt— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 11, 2019
But the most prominent moderate Democrat in the race, former vice president Joe Biden, was notably silent. Biden declined to take a position despite multiple requests from me and my colleague Faiz Siddiqui.
It's possible that top-polling candidates -- who are finally appearing on the same stage togther tonight in Texas -- will seize the California bill as a way to distinguish their economic positions. It's especially hot-button given the wide-ranging stakes for the future of the American economy: It could pose an existential threat to the business model of gig economy companies.
A national spotlight on drivers' rights would be bad for Uber and Lyft, and the technology industry is already bracing for possible questions about the future of the gig economy and going on the defensive. Last night, the industry group TechNet, which represents Lyft and Uber, put out a blog post reminding 2020 candidates that the gig economy “has created new jobs and income opportunities in virtually every corner of the country.”
“It is imperative that policymakers work closely with innovators in this space and other stakeholders to ensure that these opportunities can continue to expand, remain flexible, and meet consumers’ demand,” TechNet executive director for Texas David Edmonson wrote.
The classification of gig economy workers is no longer such a wonky topic. Compared to past political cycles, Uber and Lyft are now much more mature companies. Their recent initial public offerings highlighted the divide between their drivers' wages and protections and the financial gains of early company employees and investors.
Biden is in a complicated position: Many Obama administration officials such as former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett are in roles at the ride-sharing companies now, Faiz notes, and some Democrats working for the companies have even publicly tussled with the party's prominent liberal stars over the future of gig economy workers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) last month called out former California Sen. Barbara Boxer on Twitter for serving as a Lyft adviser and writing an op-ed that was critical of AB5.
Others have no issue taking a stand. Sanders has been active on this issue since 2018, when he introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, which would expand the definition of employer in the U.S. Warren wrote an op-ed in support of AB5 last month. Buttigieg has made the issue key to his economic plan, and he's stood alongside Uber drivers as they protest for better working conditions. California Sen. Kamala D. Harris and Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Joaquin Castro have also said they support the bill.
There could be fireworks if the issue comes up tonight, because some 2020 candidates supportive of AB5 aren't happy with industry's response. Uber announced yesterday that even when AB5 takes effect in 2020 of next year, it will not automatically reclassify its drivers as employees. Tony West, Uber's chief legal officer, told reporters that the law requires companies to show that contractors are performing work that is outside the core function of the business. Uber, he argued, can meet that qualification because it’s a technology platform for several types of marketplaces, though he expect the company's position could be challenged in arbitration and courts.
But candidates like Buttigieg and Sanders are taking issue with that position. Sanders tweeted:
Uber’s drivers are employees, not independent contractors. Large corporations will do anything to get out of paying workers a decent wage and offering them good benefits. That will end when we are in the White House. https://t.co/ru50Mgga0i— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 11, 2019
BITS: The California state Senate passed a three-year ban on the use of facial recognition software in police body cameras, my colleague Reis Thebault reports. The bill, which still needs to clear the state assembly, would make California the first state in the country to enact such a ban and set a new precedent for regulation of the rapidly expanding technology.
“Body cameras have been used as a tool to build trust between communities and law enforcement and to provide more transparency,” Democratic California Assemblyman Phil Ting, who wrote the bill, told Reis. “Putting facial recognition software into those body cameras helps destroy that trust. It turns a tool of transparency and openness into a tool of 24-hour surveillance.”
Ting was one of 26 lawmakers Amazon's Rekognition software incorrectly matched to a police mugshot in a test run by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California last month. While Amazon said the test "misrepresented" how police used the technology, the stunt highlighted widespread concerns over the technology's accuracy. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post.)
The potential abuse of facial recognition, alongside its demonstrated discrepancies in identifying persons of color, has a coalition of 30 civil rights groups asking for an all-out federal ban on police use of the technology. San Francisco, Oakland, and Sommerville have all already nacted all-out bans on police use.
NIBBLES: Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) sent a letter slamming Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the removal of content shared by an activist claiming abortion isn't medically necessary. The senators say the incident is the latest example of Big Tech's refusal to admit it discriminates against conservative content.
The senators allege that the involvement of “two pro-abortion activists with significant ties to abortion-rights advocacy organizations” in the fact-checking of the content violates Facebook's commitment to independent and nonpartisan fact-checking. They're asking the company to issue a correction, remove any restrictions placed on the page's traffic and submit to an external audit.
“Posts by Live Action and Lila Rose were fact-checked by a third party, independently certified by the International Fact Checking Network. We have been in touch with the IFCN which has opened an investigation to determine whether the fact-checkers who rated this content did so by following procedures designed to ensure impartiality,” Facebook representative Andy Stone wrote in a statement. Stone says Facebook has removed the fact checks that appeared with the posts while the case is being investigated.
An independently conducted audit into alleged conservative bias at Facebook released in August provided no evidence of the long-standing claims by Republican lawmakers that the company discriminates against conservative views. As a result of the audit, Facebook did remove advertising restrictions on imagery showing human bodies attached to medical tubes, a response to complaints from antiabortion activists.
BYTES: The Food and Drug Administration is readying new regulation of flavored e-cigarettes after a recent spate of lung illnesses linked to vaping and rising use among teens, my colleague Laurie McGinley reports. The proposed ban would require any companies seeking to sell non-tobacco-flavored vaping products to seek approval from the FDA first.
“We can’t allow people to get sick. And we can’t have our kids be so affected,” Trump said in an appearance alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. A recent HHS study found that 25 percent of high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past year, a 5 percent increase from last year. Most reported using fruity or menthol flavors.
The action from the White House has received bipartisan support. “Vaping targets kids, and these flavors — mint, menthol, gummy bear, Unicorn Milk, lung candy — have been essential to the industry luring children into this new addiction. I will closely review FDA’s guidance. Finally, the FDA is doing its job,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.).
Executives from tech companies such as Twitter, Yelp and Reddit were among a group of 145 chief executives who penned a letter to the Senate calling lawmakers to act on gun violence, my colleague Rachel Siegel writes.
The letter is the latest sign that corporate America -- and particularly Silicon Valley -- is increasingly becoming a social and political force influencing hot-topic public policy issues such as immigration. “As leaders of some of America’s most respected companies and those with significant business interests in the United States, we are writing to you because we have a responsibility and obligation to stand up for the safety of our employees, customers and all Americans in the communities we serve across the country,” the executives wrote.
The executives want lawmakers to implement stronger “red flag” laws, which allow for the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves. They also demanded an expansion of background checks to all firearms sales.
— More news from the private sector:
— News from the public sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- The Senate Judiciary Tech Task force will meet with Airbnb, Lyft, and others to discuss consumer privacy.
— Coming soon:
- The Senate Judiciary Committee will host an oversight hearing on the enforcement of antitrust laws Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time
- The Senate Commerce Committee will has a hearing on "Mass Violence, Extremism, and Digital Responsiblity" with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- Senate Judiciary will host a hearing to “explore issues relating to competition in technology markets and the antitrust agencies’ efforts to root out anticompetitive conduct” on September 24.