Gig Companies Are Making Their Workers Promote Prop. 22

3 min
An Uber driver in Los Angeles.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Even as gig companies spend a record amount of advertising money on Proposition 22, they’re making their gig workers help them market the ballot initiative.

Proposition 22 would create a carve out from California labor law to allow a handful of gig companies to continue classifying their workers as contractors, making them ineligible for employee protections and benefits like unemployment insurance and workers compensation. Lyft, Uber, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates have spent almost $200 million on the pro-Proposition 22 campaign. Where does the money go? Ads, obviously, and political consultants – but it's also going to in-app messages, flyers and takeout packaging.

If you’ve taken a ride with Uber or Lyft recently, you’ve probably seen a pro-Proposition 22 ad in the app. That marketing is also directed at drivers.

Last month at work, Hector Castellanos started seeing it while he was driving for Uber. Under a dialog box emblazoned with “Prop 22 is progress,” Castellanos had to click either "Yes on Prop 22" or "Okay." At the same time, his riders were getting pop ups that said their drivers support Proposition 22 and that they should talk with them about it.

A screenshot from Uber driver Hector Castellanos' phone. There was no option for him to click 'no' to close the pop up. (Courtesy Hector Castellanos)

Castellanos drives full-time, and throughout the work day, he kept seeing the pop up again and again. “Drivers have to click ‘yes’ even if they don’t want it,” he said. “They have to click yes.”

This was particularly upsetting to Castellanos because he opposes Proposition 22. A few years ago, he got into an accident while driving for Lyft and needed surgery on his shoulder. He couldn’t work for eight months, and because he is not an employee, he did not get worker’s compensation. His oldest daughter had to drop out of college and go to work to help the family pay the bills.

“That was something that really got to my heart,” Castellanos says, “I was probably just one case in thousands like me.” He decided drivers like him had to be employees to get basic protections like guaranteed minimum wage and workers compensation.

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An Uber spokesperson says the company changed the pop up recently to be more informational and give drivers an option to close it. Also, the spokesperson said that the pop up should have only appeared one time when drivers go offline.

But drivers sometimes log off when they switch between all different apps they work for, which means they could have to click through the pop up repeatedly. Castellanos estimates that he was seeing it 25 or 30 times a day.

 

Uber isn’t the only company using workers to spread pro-Proposition 22 messages to consumers.

Last week, Instacart asked workers through the app to put pro-Proposition 22 stickers in customers' orders at a Bay Area store. DoorDash is providing free pro-Proposition 22 food delivery bags to restaurants, which workers then have to use to bring food to customers.

One of the millions of pro-Proposition 22 delivery bags that DoorDash sent to restaurants, and that gig workers have to use to deliver food to customers. (DoorDash)

Stanford law professor William Gould says all three of these instances could be violating the protected speech of workers.

“If ever there was compelled speech, and an interference with a right of freedom of speech, which is protected in California for private sector workers, this is it," Gould said.

Federally these workers have little protection. Since the Supreme Court protected the speech of corporations as if they were people in its 2010 Citizens United decision, companies have had far more ability to mobilize their workers toward particular political goals.

However what these gig companies have made workers do "could be in violation of California labor code sections 1101 and 1102," said David Levine, a law professor at UC Hastings.

Those sections prevent an employer from attempting to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of their employees. The gig companies contend their workers are actually contractors not employees – which means they would not be protected by these sections of the labor code.

Of course, that very employment status is the central issue at stake with Proposition 22 – and if it passes, gig companies would have a much easier time having workers distribute political materials.

In response to the assertion that distributing these materials infringed on freedom of speech, a spokesperson for the Yes on Prop. 22 campaign said “Each company is communicating with their customers in various ways because of the high stakes in this election.”

After backlash online, Instacart is no longer asking workers to add stickers to orders. But DoorDash is continuing to send pro-Prop. 22 delivery bags to restaurants. The company says it has sent more than 4 million of the bags to over 600 restaurants.

Update: A spokesperson for DoorDash says more than 4 million bags have been requested by restaurants, but that the company has only sent out around 150 thousand.