June 18, 2015 / 1:29 AM / 3 years ago

Ex-Uber driver says her phone-sex business helped her tackle Uber

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The former Uber driver who won a potentially landmark employment ruling against the ride-sharing company told Reuters on Wednesday she relied on her years of running a phone sex company to take on Uber, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest private companies.

Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick is seen at her home in San Francisco, California, June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Barbara Ann Berwick represented herself, without an attorney, before the California Labor Commission, which found earlier this month that she had been an Uber employee, not an independent contractor, and thus was entitled to be reimbursed for expenses.

The ruling made waves in the tech world on Wednesday as it could impact the way many sharing-economy companies operate. Uber said the decision did not apply to other workers and has appealed it to San Francisco Superior Court.

Now a financial consultant, Berwick said she learned the nuances of contractor law when she owned a phone sex business - “Linda’s Lip Service.” The company employed some workers but the “fantasy artists” who spoke to customers were all independent contractors.

“I had to make sure I did everything right,” she told Reuters in an interview shortly after the decision was published.

Under California law, workers are deemed employees if the company exerts a certain degree of control over how they do their jobs. The commission wrote in Berwick’s ruling that Uber is “involved in every aspect of the operation.”

Classifying Uber drivers as employees could open the company up to considerably higher costs, including Social Security, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.

Analysts say that such a change could affect Uber’s valuation, currently above $40 billion, and the valuation of other companies that rely on large networks of individuals to provide rides, clean houses and other services.

Uber had argued that its drivers are independent contractors, not employees, and that it is “nothing more than a neutral technology platform.”

At a March hearing on her claim, Berwick faced two company attorneys and cross-examined an Uber product manager. Although she took on Uber by herself, Berwick will likely have a friend who is an attorney represent her now that the case is in court.

A Texas native and over 6 feet tall, Berwick moved to San Francisco in the 1960s and in many ways exemplifies the city’s colorful political fabric. She now works out of her home in the Anza Vista neighborhood with sparkling views of San Francisco’s iconic Sutro tower.

She is transsexual, polyamorous but in a longtime domestic partnership with a woman, and unsuccessfully ran for local office in 2010. One of her campaign planks was to offer a reward for information leading to the prosecution of anyone dealing in date rape drugs.

Berwick was a driver for Uber for nearly two months last year before she quit, saying the money was not what she expected and management was uncommunicative.

Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Leslie Adler

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