The Many, Many Cases of the Woman Who Just Beat Uber
“I’m enjoying my five minutes of fame.”
By Lauren Smiley
As Barbara Ann Berwick tells it, she came to San Francisco in 1969 “to be a hippie” — but ended up as an online funds trader, a defeated political candidate, and a repeat litigant, who has pressed legal claims against everyone from a hospital to a media company for leaving newspapers at her doorstep. (She lost.)
Now, though, Berwick has won an important blow against one of the most powerful companies in today’s San Francisco. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office determined her to be an employee of Uber — not just a contractor — and awarded her approximately $4,000 in expenses, according to court documents. The move follows a recent decision in Florida which said that an Uber driver was eligible for unemployment benefits, since he was a defacto employee.
Picking up the phone on Wednesday morning as the news of the decision hit, Berwick says she drove for Uber for eight weeks last summer as a way of getting some social interaction — since all her trading work happens at home and online in the early mornings. She had “all these extra hours, and I was really bored,” she said, plus: “I’m a transsexual — so I have social problems because transsexuals do, and I don’t meet a lot of people.”
Berwick waved off naysayers who will accuse her of cruising for another legal settlement by taking the wheel of her car for Uber. This is, after all, a time when the behemoth ridesharing company faces battles across the country about classifying its drivers as contractors, meaning that they are not eligible for benefits or other perks. She wasn’t cynical, says Berwick. She said she’d been homeless in the past. But now in general, “I’m doing quite well.”
“I want social change,” Berwick says. Before she took the Uber gig, she says, she didn’t realize that she’d be driving as a contractor. “I didn’t actually read the box I checked, so I assumed I’d be an employee, because it makes no sense to be an independent contractor. I found out real fast.” She says she was regularly driving more than 40 hours a week.
She says she stopped driving in September and filed her claim.
But Berwick is no stranger to the legal claims. “My history is peppered with litigation. I don’t want people to step on me with illegal actions.” Her name brings up more than a dozen suits in San Francisco Superior Court.
Way back in 1995, she won $521 from a hospital. That was one of only a few victories.
In 2007, she sued Marina Pizza and Cafe for $500. She lost.
In 2008, she sued SF Newspaper Company for $500 for “harassment” for leaving newspapers at her residence — after she “demanded” that they stop. “I was trying to get them to stop leaving newspapers on my doorstep,” she says. “I lost that one. I don’t win all my cases.”
She ran for city district supervisor in 2010, according to her website. One of her platforms was reducing the salaries for the same job she was running for.
She won just 2.23% of the vote.
But she says her political run shows “obviously, I’m interested in social change.” Berwick is also a savvy woman — she insisted I put a link to her trading company in the story to talk to me about the Uber case. (I agreed: it’s something we would likely link to anyways.) “I’m enjoying my five minutes of fame. You’re the third person to call.”
Already, the attorney representing California Uber drivers in a labor suit in federal court is cheering the decision. “It’s great news,” says attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who is suing Uber, Lyft, and many other on-demand companies over classifying workers as contractors. “This could be significant for our case, and I was happy to see the California Labor Commission agrees with our argument that the drivers are employees.” Liss-Riordan added that the commission was looking at the same state labor laws that will be used as the test in her federal case.
The state industrial relations department said that cases like Berwick’s are weighed on a case-by-case basis for each worker who lodges a claim. That is very relevant, since Liss-Riordan says “there are some cases moving through the labor commission [against Uber]. I believe there are some more pending.”
Uber filed a notice that it would be appealing the Berwick decision on Tuesday. The company’s attorney wasn’t immediately available for comment Wednesday morning. In a statement to CNBC, Uber said: “The California Labor Commission’s ruling is non-binding and applies to a single driver. Indeed it is contrary to a previous ruling by the same commission, which concluded in 2012 that the driver ‘performed services as an independent contractor, and not as a bona fide employee.’”
Meanwhile, Berwick says she hasn’t made any decision on whether to drive for Uber again. Her next step? “Get a check.”
Update: Check the author’s response below for more lawsuits from Berwick’s company.