Seven years ago, Jan Krueger’s daughter called with some news: She’d quit her job. Instead of getting a new one, she was making money driving strangers around town in her car, which, by the way, now had a fuzzy pink mustache attached to the grille.
“I thought that she had just lost her mind,” said Krueger, who was working at the time as a manager in the California Department of Corrections. “She goes, ‘No, no, no, it’s so much fun. You have to do it when they launch in Sacramento.’”
When Lyft did launch in Sacramento a few months later, Krueger signed up. And she loved it.
She loved the passengers she met. She loved the community that developed among Sacramento’s Lyft drivers. And most of all, she loved the freedom that being a ride-share driver offered – no schedules, no managers. She made money whenever and wherever she wanted.
Now Krueger is something of a rock star in the Lyft community. She’s known as MomLyft on Twitter and Instagram, and she even got the moniker tattooed in pink on her right arm.
But Krueger is worried she’ll lose her side gig if California voters on Tuesday reject Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that would allow app-based drivers to remain independent contractors rather than employees of ride-share and food-delivery companies such as Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash.
Prop 22, as it is known, would exempt those companies from a 2019 state statute that greatly limited the amount of work that can be performed by freelancers and independent contractors before they must be considered full-time employees and offered typical benefits such as a minimum wage and health and unemployment insurance.
The ride-share and delivery companies have pumped almost $200 million into Prop 22, making it the most expensive ballot measure in California history. Opposition is mostly coming from Democrats and labor unions, which can’t organize workers who are contractors.
Tuesday’s election result could help shape the national debate about labor policy and how to regulate freelance and gig work.
Polls of drivers have shown that as many as 70 to 80 percent support Prop 22, though opponents of the measure argue the polls aren’t scientific and have asked slanted questions.
Prop 22 opponents argue that ride-share drivers are exploited. The drivers don’t receive benefits, they argue, and some don’t even make minimum wage because they’re not paid for downtime between rides. They say they don’t trust the companies to do right by their workers.
“I’ve been doing it seven years. I’ve never felt exploited,” said Krueger, who retired from her corrections job in June.
She said she rarely has downtime and usually has back-to-back rides lined up. She has to alert Lyft to stop sending her customers when she wants to stop working.
“I would have never lasted this long if it was costing me money,” she said. “I definitely make far, far more than minimum wage.”
Jim Pyatt, 63, of Modesto, estimates he usually earns $30 to $35 per hour driving mostly for Uber. He typically heads into San Francisco on Fridays and Saturdays to drive and gets an inexpensive motel room so he doesn’t have to drive back and forth home to Modesto.
Anyone making less than minimum wage is “not being a very smart independent contractor,” said Pyatt, a retiree who used to work in the newspaper and specialty-bicycle businesses.
“I know for a fact every area, every neighborhood in San Francisco where people are going to get rides and at what time,” he said. “So I know where to be at 4 o’clock in the morning. I know where to be at 8 o’clock in the morning. I drive smart.”
Pyatt said he uses his Uber earnings – his “grandkids stash,” as he calls it — to do things for his family. That could be extras on family vacations, or helping out with the medical expenses for his baby granddaughter, who was born with a rare nerve disorder.
Krueger also said she uses her Lyft money for extras – vacations, helping friends and family with vet bills. She doesn’t rely on it to pay her bills, and doesn’t look at it as a second career.
“I do treat it as a gig, because that’s what it is,” she said. “I know there are people who do it full-time. I’ve even met drivers who have quit their other jobs to do it full-time. I just don’t think that is a good idea because it is a gig.”
Akamine Kiarie, 27, a student at Sacramento State University, doesn’t view his ride-share gig with Lyft as a career either, but he is using it to pay his way through school.
Before he started driving with Lyft, Kiarie, who originally is from Kenya, worked for his family’s party rental business, in the automotive industry, and in tech support. He said he likes the freedom that ride-share work provides. He can work around his school schedule, and no one is forcing Kiarie – a night owl – to get up early to work.
“That has many benefits,” he said. “Nobody was trying to tell me you need to be here by this time. So that reflects in my work. That’s why my ratings are the way they are after almost 10,000 rides and three years of doing what I do.”
Prop 22 wouldn’t exactly be a return to the status quo for California’s more than 1 million app-based drivers. The measure would ensure drivers are paid at least 120 percent of minimum wage during their engaged time – the time between accepting a ride and dropping passengers off at their destination – and would fund new health benefits for drivers who work at least 15 hours per week.
Prop 22 supporters worry that if the initiative doesn’t pass, the app-based driving companies could simply end operations in California. And even if they don’t, Prop 22 supporters expect there will be fewer drivers allowed on the road at any time and rates will increase.
There could be less service in rural areas, where it may not be financially viable to pay drivers to sit and wait for occasional calls, they said.
Drivers campaigning against Prop 22 “are advocating themselves out of a gig,” Krueger said. Drivers who are hired could be expected to work shifts and required to accept rides they don’t want, and the companies would have to more closely track their hours.
If California voters don’t pass Prop 22, Pyatt said, “I’m out of a job, plain and simple.”
“I don’t want to be an employee,” he said. “I’ve done that. That’s not what I want this time in my life. It upsets me that someone is trying to control what I can and cannot do.”
“I will not do it as a W-2 employee,” she said. “I have no interest. I just retired.”
Krueger described herself as a Democrat, but she said she’s appalled at what she sees as a power grab by the party and by unions.
Most app-based drivers in California don’t make a career out of the work. For Krueger and many others, the freedom that comes with being a ride-share driver is the main appeal. Many ride-share drivers work for multiple companies at the same time.
Krueger said she doesn’t expect that would be allowed if the drivers were full-time employees of one of the companies.
“Do you ever see a McDonald’s worker just up and tell their boss, ‘No, I’m going to go across the street and work at Taco Bell and do maybe two hours there,’” she said. “It’s that flexibility that means everything to the majority of drivers.”
Even Kiarie, who is more reliant on his ride-share income than Krueger and Pyatt, said he may stop driving if Prop 22 fails, because at that point it would likely be just like any other regimented job. “It’s going to suck,” he said, adding that he could just find another job close to home.
“To me, it’s a new space in employment, it’s a new space in earning money,” he said. “And it should be treated that way.”