When Raef Lawson filed his $586.56 lawsuit in San Francisco he probably didn't realize he could potentially end up disrupting the entire 'gig economy' that subsidizes a plethora of Silicon Valley tech giants from Uber to DoorDash, but that could very well end up being the outcome.
As Yahoo points out today, Lawson used to be a delivery driver for GrubHub but now he finds himself at the epicenter of an ongoing legal battle over whether 1099 contractors working for firms GrubHub and Uber should really be counted at employees rather than independent contractors.
In a windowless, 15th-floor courtroom in downtown San Francisco last week, GrubHub was defending its 1099 independent contractor employment model for its delivery drivers.
There's no verdict yet, and there probably won't be for at least another week. This trial, Lawson vs. GrubHub, is looking to determine whether or not plaintiff Raef Lawson, an ex-GrubHub driver, was misclassified as an independent contractor while delivering food for GrubHub.
Lawson's lawyer, Shannon Liss-Riordan (pictured below), has spent a good chunk of time in this trial focusing on the amount of control she perceived GrubHub to have over Lawson during the time he delivered food for them. She's trying to prove that Lawson's employment met the conditions of the Borello test, which looks at circumstances like whether the work performed is part of the company’s regular business, the skill required, payment method and whether the work is done under supervision of a manager. The purpose of the test is to determine whether a worker is a 1099 contractor or a W-2 employee.
Of course, the entire business model for companies like Uber hangs in the balance as adding 1,000s of employees to their own payrolls would drastically change, if not completely destroy, their business model.
For now, these employers bring on 1099 contractors to avoid paying taxes, overtime pay, benefits and workers' compensation. But, if that were to change, the cost of that Uber trip would suddenly look a lot like your taxi fare from 10 years ago.
Those who work as 1099 contractors can be their own bosses, meaning they can set their own schedules, and decide when, where and how much they want to work. Being a 1099 contractor can also be a solid, lucrative side-hustle because you could theoretically work for several companies at once. As noted in this trial, Lawson also delivered food for other gig economy startups, including Postmates. For employers, bringing on 1099 contractors means they can avoid paying taxes, overtime pay, benefits and workers' compensation.
Although Lawson only seeks a small, estimated sum of $586.56, the result of the trial could potentially affect the employment models of companies like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Caviar, DoorDash and many others.
Perhaps that's why it makes sense that, as Yahoo points out, Uber's undoubtedly high-paid "employment counsel team" has suddenly taken a very active interest in a tiny $500 lawsuit.
On day one, I noticed a member of Uber's employment counsel team watching closely, taking notes about the trial. That makes sense, given Uber has found itself as the defendant in similar lawsuits that have ultimately been settled before needing to go to trial.
But, who knows if we'll ever see a verdict in the Lawson vs. GrubHub trial...for some odd reason these types of cases keep get settled before a judge can rule on them.