Free Enterprise

Marlea and Me

Date: Feb. 17, 2022

Today, I took a ride from the Utah Capitol to my hotel in Salt Lake City. I was coming back from a tough meeting about a gig economy bill I was supporting and feeling overall dejected. But, as is my practice when an Uber driver asks me what I do, or what I’m up to, I tell the truth. 

Today my driver, Marlea, said I was her first rider of the day, and that she had started late. “Started late?” I said. “Isn’t that the beauty of being your own boss? That you’re never late?” She agreed politely with a chuckle. Then she asked me what I was doing at the Capitol, “hanging out with all those politicians.” I told her I was trying, though failing, to show lawmakers how they can update their employment laws to improve the gig economy. Then I mentioned I work in tech policy, hoping to change the subject to something else.

Her eyes widened like so many others, but not for the reason I thought. She asked me, “What do you think about those bitcoins?” I misheard her as saying, “What do you think about those big boys,” and braced myself. Upon clarification, I explained that I am an incompetent crypto trader, and we moved on to the gig economy.

The small part of Marlea’s story that I had the pleasure of hearing was that she is originally from California. She worked in San Francisco’s corporate world for thirty years, mostly doing corporate sales before retiring and moving out to Utah by herself. Ten years before making the move, Marlea had purchased a commercial property in Utah. She made the move out here six years ago, and because she was by herself, began driving for Uber. At the beginning of the pandemic, she converted her commercial property into Airbnbs and saw her short-term rental properties boom with people moving in from all across the country.

To Marlea, the Uber and Lyft struggle in California dealing with the employee vs independent contractor debate, ended up with the wrong answer. “It’s a totally new kind of work,” she said. “You can’t call these people employees because we’re not.” Marlea did, however, believe that what Uber had begun doing in California—paying into group benefit plans and unemployment insurance funds in response to employment classification fights—is a good thing. 

Marlea says she can earn up to $500 a week working on her own schedule. She says she knows another Uber driver who found out a way to earn up to $2,000 a week by being very structured and diligent, starting at 3 am and working a set number of hours. 

Marlea has appeared on local news, driving reporters around on camera and taking an interview about the Uber ratings system. All around, she was a delightful person. Sharp and reasonable. 

“I’ve gone to a few activist events up there at the Capitol,” she told me. “I went once, and I looked around the room, and the only women there were myself and the mayor.” She had a fair point.

As a farewell to Marlea, I gave her my card and told her, “Next time I try to do something on the gig economy, I’m just going to bring you with me, and you can just tell your story again. That’s how we’re going to change minds and get this all sorted.”

After Marlea

When I got back to my hotel room, shrugged off my tie, and sat down to decompress, it dawned on me that I had never considered how platforms like Uber and Lyft were approaching gig workers in California. As part of a voter referendum in 2020 called Proposition 22, California residents voted down a bill passed by the legislature which would have reclassified gig workers as employees. Part of the deal, however, was that platforms would be required to offer access to things like health insurance, a version of vacation pay, and more. 

But after Prop 22 passed by a significant margin, it wound up in the courts thanks to a legal technicality of whether Californians can constitutionally overturn laws passed by the legislature. At the same time, app-based platform involvement in financing the campaign to support Prop 22 received an increase in publicity. 

However, underneath the legal issues and political problems, what is most interesting is that platforms like Uber and Lyft actually agreed to pay for statutorily mandated benefits because the cost of reclassifying workers as employees was even greater. Thus the gap in coverage, even in one of the largest economies in the world like California, can be closed with legal clarity. Just not the kind that hurts a platform’s overall viability.