• Mark Markovich

Commissioner Steve Novick says he's asking the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries to look into Uber, after California's Labor Commission ruled an Uber driver was an employee—NOT a contractor like the company claims.

The ruling came down in March, but only got scrutiny yesterday after Uber filed an appeal. The actual decision—that Uber owes one driver more than $4,000 in back wages—isn't an issue for the $40 billion company. The underpinning logic very well might be. It could thrust Uber into the world of workers' comp and social security taxes and all the sticky things that come with being an employer and not a "logistics company," as Uber likes to call itself.

The California commission's ruling will give ammo to other Golden State employees who want to file similar claims. Novick wants to see if something similar might apply here. Here's the statement Novick released earlier today:

This ruling is very interesting. I am going to ask The State Bureau of Labor and Industries how Oregon law compares with California law, and see if the same analysis applies, or if Oregon law would need to be changed for the same analysis to apply. Based on previous statements I have seen from BOLI, it seems that Oregon law is different, but I will ask them to revisit the issue in light of the California ruling. And I am going to ask drivers if they would want to have employee status, with the accompanying benefits and protections. One of the things that concerns me about Uber and Lyft is the fact that their drivers do not have the protections and benefits of employees. Indeed, many of the 'regular' taxi drivers are also treated as independent contractors. My own instinct is that drivers – both taxi and TNC drivers - would be better off if they could obtain the protections and benefits of employees. I’d like to see if the drivers agree."

Uber's had a stormy relationship with Novick, and the city in general. The company began operating here late last year, flouting Portland's existing regulations around taxis and similar transport. Uber eventually agreed to back off, but the dust-up forced Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales to convene a task force that helped create a four-month pilot project that's allowed Uber to operate legally today.

It remains a controversial topic, though. The city's cab drivers—like cabbies the world over—detest Uber and its main competitor, Lyft. They claim the companies are held to lower standards than taxi companies, and say the city should make these so-called "transportation network companies" adhere to the same driver background checks cabs use.

We ran a story in today's Mercury showing Uber hired one of the city's most infamous rogue cabbies this year, despite the fact the City of Portland has said for years he's banned from accepting fares within city limits.