By Levi Sumagaysay
As more than a dozen alleged assault victims sue Lyft, California drivers' lawsuits call out company's classification of drivers as independent contractors as court fight over Prop. 22 continues
Lyft Inc. driver Erika Garcia-Galicia voted against a 2020 California ballot initiative that would exempt Lyft and other "gig work" companies from having to treat their drivers as employees instead of independent contractors.
"I have a lot of friends who do Lyft and use other platforms," Garcia-Galicia told MarketWatch in an interview. "They deserve the right to have benefits."
Two years after Proposition 22 passed, Garcia-Galicia was forced to confront the high stakes of the debate. She says she became a victim of sexual assault while driving for Lyft (LYFT), and that she believes the company's inadequate response to what happened to her stems directly from the gig-work business model.
Garcia-Galicia, who lives in the Los Angeles area and last week sued Lyft over a February 2022 incident in which she said a male passenger groped and tried to kiss her, called Prop. 22 "a way of suppressing everybody's voice. It's a way for Lyft not to be held accountable."
Her lawsuit may hinge on the fate of Prop. 22, which was ruled unconstitutional by a California court after voters passed it. The lawsuit contends that Lyft's classification of drivers as contractors was a factor in the company's failure to protect Garcia-Galicia, who drove for the ride-hailing platform for about four years, working on it full-time for at least half that time. It is one of 17 lawsuits, filed at the end of August, that involve allegations of physical and sexual assault of drivers and passengers.
For more: Lyft sued over alleged assaults of 17 drivers and passengers
"Because Lyft intentionally misclassified all of its driver-employees as independent contractors rather than employees, Plaintiff was not afforded basic legal protections that are designed to protect her from sexual assaults, compensate her for the assault that occurred, and facilitate her recovery," Garcia-Galicia's lawsuit reads.
Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said a finding on misclassification in this lawsuit will likely depend on the outcome of the challenge to Prop. 22. Uber Technologies Inc. (UBER) and a coalition of gig companies that include Lyft and DoorDash Inc. (DASH) have appealed the court decision that struck it down.
Lawyer Tracey Cowan said things "may have been different" for her client, Garcia-Galicia, and other ride-hailing assault survivors -- both passengers and drivers -- if the company's business model wasn't based on evading responsibility for employing drivers. Among the complaints in Garcia-Galicia's lawsuit are that she did not receive training "on how to deal with such a horrible situation, and had little to no information about the strangers -- including the Rider -- Lyft paid her to transport in her vehicle."
"I was a huge opponent of Prop. 22 from the beginning because I know of these cases," Cowan said. Last October, Lyft published a community safety report that showed it had recorded more than 4,100 sexual-assault claims from 2017 to 2019.
"Importantly, the case references the denial of workers' compensation -- which is the issue at stake in the current lawsuit against Proposition 22," Jacobs said. The judge who struck down Prop. 22 did so because he said it limits the power of future state legislatures to define workers as subject to workers' comp laws.
A Lyft spokeswoman pointed to a provision in Prop. 22 that requires gig companies to provide occupational accident coverage for medical expenses and lost income for injuries suffered when workers are "online," or on the job.
But Garcia-Galicia said she has received no compensation and is dissatisfied with the company's response. After reporting to the company that a male passenger described his genitalia to her, groped her breast and tried to kiss her, she said a Lyft representative apologized and told her that passenger would be suspended. She then received an email from the company, which she called "broad" and which made her feel the company did not care as she suffered from panic attacks.
Then the passenger contacted her on her phone, further upsetting her.
"Why did they give him my information?" she said she asked a Lyft representative. When she was told the company did not provide her contact information, she was not reassured. "Does he know where I live?" she said she thought, adding that the company did not make her feel safe, that she pretty quickly decided to stop driving afterward, and that she is now in therapy.
Lyft spokeswoman Gabriela Condarco-Quesada told MarketWatch that the company has a 24-hour critical response line that drivers and passengers can call to report incidents, and that "every member of our safety team is a credentialed victim advocate."
Read: How scammers target vulnerable gig workers, and why it may never end
Another former Lyft driver, Amy Collins, has sued the company and said an intoxicated male passenger stroked her arm, groped her breasts and choked her after she picked him up from a winery in Napa, Calif. The incident in March 2020 brought back memories of two previous rapes and continues to haunt her to this day, she told MarketWatch.
Collins said she had lost her job at a Napa Valley hotel and resort, and had barely gotten started driving for Lyft to try to make money, when it happened. She said she was on the highway and unaware that she could have pulled over when the passenger attacked her. She was unable to reach for her phone because the passenger was "pressing his full body weight against her seat and pinning her to her seat as she drove" until she dropped him off at his destination, according to her lawsuit.
"I thought Lyft would fire me," said Collins, who had only been driving for the platform for about a month. "I didn't think I had any rights."
Condarco-Quesada, the Lyft spokeswoman, said the company requires every driver to take a community-safety education course before driving with the platform. The course was created in partnership with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, North America's largest anti-sexual violence organization, she said.
Collins said "I've never even heard of that" course. She said she only remembers having to provide her driver's license and proof of insurance, and having to wait for a vehicle inspection, before being cleared to drive for Lyft.
Collins said though she would rather have become an employee of Lyft, she "didn't mind being an independent contractor." She said she was thinking of trying to work for Lyft full-time before she was assaulted.
Cowan also is representing Collins in her lawsuit against Lyft, which also cites Prop. 22 as a factor in the company's response to her alleged assault. "Our position is that she was an employee of Lyft," Cowan said.
Collins said she is now on disability for major depression. She has replaced her Nissan Altima with another vehicle because it "was a daily reminder" of what happened.
"It's been two years but I'm still working through it," she said, adding that she is choosing to speak up because she wants Lyft to take responsibility, and that she hopes other survivors will come forward, too.
See also: 'It's like being ripped into two' -- Chipotle workers overwhelmed by online orders and furious customers
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 08, 2022 15:56 ET (19:56 GMT)
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