From Gig to Gone

Uber and Lyft Threaten to Leave California over AB5

Last September I wrote a blog post entitled “California and the Death of the Gig Economy” about California Assembly Bill 5 and the reclassification of contractors as employees. I had my concerns over how companies like Uber and Lyft would react to AB5 and the cost overloads of suddenly having a million new employees added to their balance sheet. Would Uber ramp up automation? Would fares go up? There was also the risk of them up and leaving. So how did it turn out?

Uber and Lyft initially fought back against AB5: The companies, along with DoorDash, filed paperwork in late 2019 for the Protect App-Based Drivers & Services Campaign, a California ballot measure that would create an exemption to AB5 for app-based driver contractors. In 2020, Uber altered its app in an attempt to circumvent the law, letting drives set their own payment rates.

Neither measure worked and this past May California sued the ride-sharing companies to make their contractor drivers into employees. Three days ago, on August 10, 2020, a California judge ruled that Uber and Lyft must comply with AB5 immediately.

So, to recap: A company developed an app and service to bring a lower cost service to consumers. People begin to work for the company to provide said service and were compensated for doing so. The same people now want more, so they go to their state representatives to pass law to force the company to give them more. As California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez put it, “It makes sure that the one million independent contractors in California get the wages and benefits they deserve.” 

This was from my blog post last year:

From the first glance here it appears Assembly Bill 5 could have disastrous effects on personal income in the state of California. People working as contractors on their terms will be forced to conform as an employee or lose out on their former gig. Jobs could be lost to automation. Some companies may up and move, taking their jobs with them or choose to cut back because they can’t afford to take on these contractors as employees. 

And what happened?

Faced with the massive tidal wave of increased costs for operating in the state of California, Uber and Lyft announced that they’re leaving California. From The Verge:

Lyft said it would shut down operations in California if forced to classify drivers as employees, the company’s executives said in an earnings call with investors on Wednesday. Lyft joins Uber in threatening to pull out of one of its most important US markets over the question of drivers’ employment status…

Both companies have said they would appeal the ruling, which was stayed for 10 days.

But if their appeals fail, Lyft may join Uber in closing up shop in California, the company’s president John Zimmer said. “If our efforts here are not successful it would force us to suspend operations in California,” Zimmer said on a call announcing the second quarter earnings of 2020.

To some, it may look like a grumpy former startup is taking their ball and going home. This article from The Hill has comments full of vitriol toward the “greedy corporations” “extorting” California. Some in the comments call for revoking business licenses for Lyft and Uber — it’s a lot like saying “you can’t quit because you’re fired!”

It’s easy to see why Californians are mad. Scores of Lyft and Uber drivers thought they would suddenly get benefits, paid time off, and a minimum wage are now getting nothing at all if these companies shut down. Don’t forget: these companies have never had a quarter of profit! There’s also the unmentioned damage COVID-19 and the lockdown has done to their businesses. Lyft suffered a 61% revenue drop in the second quarter this year while Uber experienced only a 29% decrease, buoyed by Uber Eats delivery while people were stuck at home.

You can’t get blood from a turnip.

I just don’t see how adhering to AB5 could possibly work at this point. As of March 25, 2020 Uber had about $7 billion in debt (Lyft currently has none). With already not being profitable and suffering corona-related revenue drops, Uber would be forced to borrow more to cover the increased costs associated with converting contractors to employees in California. The choice here is essentially an existential one: Does a company with $7 billion in debt that’s never had a profitable quarter take on more debt to conform to California’s AB5 or do they cut the market loose and spare the debt load? If they take on increased debt to cover 2020’s employee expenses during a pandemic year where they most definitely won’t turn a profit, they’ll have to borrow more again next year to for 2021’s employee costs. They would go deeper into debt with larger debt-servicing payments cutting into yearly expenses against falling revenues.

Even without a current debt load, Lyft would likely have to do the same. After all, these are sudden costs for which money wasn’t previously allocated. Debt would have to be taken on to finance the costs. It becomes existential for Lyft as well. And what if the companies cave to California’s demand and it embolden’s other states to pass their own version of AB5?

The fallout from this will impact millions. All the Uber and Lyft drivers who drive or work for these companies will lose income if the companies shut down (or relocate). To continue to drive for Uber or Lyft these contractors would have to move to a state where they still operate. Less income means less taxes taken in locally and federally from these contractor’s yearly 1099s. This puts California deeper in the current tax revenue hole. Uber — publicly traded as of last year — stock has taken a hit on the ultimatum, reducing the value of retirement accounts and personal brokerage accounts that hold shares.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but it does not look good. I wonder if taxi drivers are the only ones celebrating here.

The Other Side of $15 Part 2

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing — it was here first.”

Mark Twain

This is the second part to an on-going series. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you can do so here.

I never intended to continue on the topic of $15 per hour, but after publishing Part 1 a few weeks ago, I continue to see it come up everywhere. I also found some additional points worth mentioning. Part 1 didn’t really give a conclusion, but the results of the thought experiment showed that there is no economic basis for $15 per hour minimum wage and that there are unintended consequences as part of it.

New York City continues to be a battleground for $15, with some economic reports stating that the increase of minimum wage to $15 this year making the case that it has caused restaurants to thrive, while others — including the government’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) — to show a negative impact.

So which is it?

The New School and National Employment Law Project (NELP) wrote a joint report this month claiming they found a “thriving industry” despite the recent forced increase of minimum wage: “The New York City restaurant industry has maintained substantially faster job growth than the private sector overall in the years since the State minimum wage rose in phases from $7.25 an hour at the end of 2013 to $15.00 at the end of 2018.” However, in reading the report I found this statement on the same page of the executive summary: “This report does not suggest that New York City’s sharp minimum wage increase caused restaurant employment to soar—the more rapid restaurant employment gains likely are due to the city’s faster private job growth.”

So it didn’t hurt employment, but $15 per hour is not the catalyst for the industry to be “thriving” as Business Insider would lend you to believe (citing the same joint report as above). It appears some publications jumped on the report as “proof” a $15 minimum wage is good for business. I’m sure Bernie Sanders would agree with them.

Other reports aren’t so rosy about $15 in the Big Apple. According to the Foundation for Economic Education, New York City has lost 4,000 jobs in the restaurant sector this past year. The article included this Bureau of Labor Statistics chart showing a negative percent change in NYC restaurant employment:

In addition, according to an NYC Hospitality Alliance survey taken only a month after the $15 per hour bill took effect in New York, restaurants immediately started cutting employee hours afterward. All overtime work was halted also. The survey queried 574 establishments in New York City and found:

76.50% of full service restaurant respondents reduced employee hours, and 36.30% eliminated jobs in 2018, in response to mandated wage increases.* 75% of limited service restaurant respondents report that they will reduce employee hours, and 53.10% will eliminate jobs in 2019 as a result of mandated wage increases that took effect on December 31, 2018.

*In 2018, NYC also raised the minimum wage to $13 per hour from $11.

In addition, 87.3% of respondents report they will increase menu prices in 2019 as a result of the wage increases; 60.8% reported their food and beverage menu will be “reworked” in response to the increases; and 34.4% of respondents told surveyors that their repeat customers were dining at the restaurant less frequently than before the mandatory increase.

Graph showing 2019 impact on Full Service Restaurants from the same Hospitality Alliance survey
Graph showing 2019 impact on Limited Service Restaurants from the same Hospitality Alliance survey

Remember what happened to my fictional restaurant in Part 1 of this series? Once my payroll costs were increased 106%, it became a struggle to maintain employment and retail the cost of my hamburgers. Working hours had to be cut, which impacted operations, and the only other choice was to raise the cost of the hamburgers (by more than double), which threatened repeat customers. The findings by the Alliance show that my thought experiment was essentially correct, with real life results matching my fictional ones. The result is the same: increased menu costs and cut hours eventually lead to eliminating jobs.

There’s plenty of other recent articles criticizing the negative impact of the $15 wage increase from the New York Post, Business Insider, National Interest, and the Wall Street Journal. According to the Seattle Times an “upscale” restaurant chain in the city is blaming increased wage hikes for their bankruptcy filing, showing an increase of $10.4 million in additional labor costs.

Overall, the results haven’t been promising. If it is hurting high cost of living cities like Seattle and New York City, I imagine it would be devastating to cities like Buffalo, New York or Omaha, Nebraska — two cities with the lowest cost of living in the U.S. I can’t even imagine the struggle restaurants would have keeping up here in Pittsburgh.

One of the biggest problem with a national $15 per hour minimum wage is that its national. Cost of living fluctuates wildly throughout the 50 states, as evidenced from this U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data. An article from USA Today broke it down in easier to read terms (ever tried to read a government economic report?). In Mississippi, a dollar’s worth is actually the highest — equivalent to $1.16. That means that $1 will buy $1.16 worth of goods and services there. The lowest worth (predictably) is Hawaii, where $1 will only purchase $0.84 worth of goods and services. California and New York, two of the biggest advocates for $15 minimum wage, each buy only $0.87 worth. By comparison, your dollar bill is 25% more valuable somewhere like Mississippi or Ohio ($1.12).

So while $15 minimum wage is less disruptive when the dollar buys less, imagine the economic impact in a low-rent city. Prices absolutely must spike to accommodate such a (relative) large increase in labor cost. Cost of living will be forcibly dragged upward, disrupting the entire local economy as locals cannot afford to eat out or do the things they used to do. I can’t imagine that small, rural economies can support a $15 minimum wage either. I suspect it’s the rural areas and lower cost of living cities that have kept the federal minimum wage down, as they cannot cope with a higher one.

For example, in Pittsburgh we have a restaurant chain called Eat’n Park. There are quite a few of them, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some of them are also open 24 hours. Most dishes are in the $8-$12 range. According to Glass Door, almost all employees in the restaurant have wages that range from $4 per hour (server) to $10 per hour (dishwasher, cook). The store manager, on average, earns a $43,000 per year salary. If $15 per hour were implemented, that’s a 4x increase in server’s pay alone. Everyone in the restaurant (save the manager) gets a significant pay increase. If menu costs are increased to offset the huge wage changes, I guarantee you business will go down. Eat’N Park is very popular with the senior citizen crowd, most of whom are on fixed incomes (which is why they eat at Eat’N Park). Fixed income senior citizens are not going to be willing (or able) to pay the increased costs.

$15 per hour minimum wage is in no way a one-size-fits-all solution.

So why are big box retailers like Walmart advocating for $15 per hour minimum wage? Wouldn’t that hurt them having tens of thousands of employees? I’ll go into detail in the third and final part of this series. Stay tuned!