In many ways, Barbara Ann Berwick is the ideal Uber driver. She’s enterprising, a true “small business entrepreneur,” as Uber likes to describe its workers. For years she ran a money-management firm, and before that operated a phone-sex business. By the time she signed up to drive for Uber in July 2014, Berwick was already well-versed in the worlds of self-employment and small business. So it’s fitting that in September of that year she put her knowledge and entrepreneurial knack to good use, filing a claim with the California Labor Commissioner over her status as an independent contractor on Uber’s platform.
Last week, it came out that the commission had ruled in Berwick’s favor—deeming the 65-year-old an employee of Uber and ordering the ride-hailing company to pay her roughly $4,000 in owed expenses. Uber has already appealed the decision, which if cemented as precedent could have grave implications for its independent contractor–based business model, and the legal fight is sure to be protracted. But for Berwick, it’s looking like another business opportunity.
“Rideshareschool.com,” she tells me Monday evening. That would be the not-yet-live website Berwick plans to launch advertising a series of classes on how Uber drivers can file complaints like hers and be deemed employees by the California Labor Commissioner. “It’ll take two to three hours and I’ll go over all of the particulars and stuff,” she explains. “Exactly what you want to do to get compensated as an employee, how to claim your expenses and stuff. That would be for anyone that’s interested.” Interested and willing to show up with $50 in hand, that is. “I’ll take a check but I prefer cash,” Berwick says. “They should bring paper and pencil to take notes. Only the first 10 people who present with payment will be admitted.”
Reached Monday night, an Uber spokeswoman declined to comment on Berwick’s class plans, instead pointing to a study the company conducted earlier this year that found most drivers prefer their flexible status as contractors.
While Berwick says the media has been hounding her ever since her decision was released, fellow Uber drivers haven’t done the same. That might sound surprising—presumably plenty of drivers would like to be deemed Uber employees and have their expenses reimbursed—but Berwick thinks it’s mostly because they don’t know how to reach her. “I’ve heard from a few but not many,” Berwick says. “The situation is people don’t necessarily know how to get ahold of me.” She asks how I found her number. It was on Yelp.
At my request, Berwick outlines again her arguments for why Uber should be considered an employer, and herself an employee rather than an independent contractor. She breezes through the company’s “control mechanisms” for its drivers—last-minute cancellations without pay, the five-star rating system, rider feedback, and weekly emails—as though she is delivering a well-practiced spiel. “Four mechanisms don’t just constitute pervasive control,” Berwick says, citing a key phrase California uses to define an employer-employee relationship, “in my opinion, they constitute abject control.”
Berwick isn’t a lawyer, but she knows her way around a legal dispute. She readily admits that she’s been a litigant many times, though always as a plaintiff. “Oh God, I don’t know,” Berwick says, when I ask how many times. (A search for “Barbara Ann Berwick” in San Francisco Superior Court’s online database yields 17 different results from 1987 to 2009.) She says all this experience was helpful in navigating the claim against Uber, like when it came time for her second hearing and, she alleges, Uber produced a perjurious witness.
“He said the passengers pay the drivers, which is not true,” Berwick tells me. “I pulled out a bank statement and I put it on the table and said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ And he said, ‘a bank statement.’ And I said, ‘Very good!’ And I said, ‘If you take a look at these payments here, who’s making the payments?’ And he said, ‘Rasier.’ ” Rasier, she explains, is a subsidiary of Uber. “I turned to the hearing officer and I said, ‘He swore on the penalty of perjury that he would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but he didn’t do it, he lied, and would you like to prosecute this man for perjury?’ ” Berwick continues. “And the officer said no, because they only do that for criminal proceedings.” (Uber’s spokeswoman declined to comment on this particular anecdote.)
Attendees of Berwick’s classes will doubtless be regaled with similarly entertaining stories, though what actual lessons will be imparted and over how many sessions is less clear. “I have no idea. This is brand new,” Berwick says when I ask for more details. Her own claim—and $4,000 payout—are pending on Uber’s appeal. While Berwick represented herself in front of the Labor Commissioner, she’s since gotten an attorney. In the meantime, she plans to begin instructing the classes at 2 p.m. next Monday, and add sessions on other days as needed. The first one will be held at 167 Anzavista Ave. in San Francisco, the same address associated with Berwick Enterprises, the company she founded.
Hoping to sit in? When rideshareschool.com goes live, would-be attendees will be able to register there, Berwick says. Until then, she says, you can give her a call—yes, at the number on Yelp.