Marketplace Fees Under Pressure: Uber Settles With Drivers, Again

Uber headed off a class action lawsuit by 2,000 New York-area drivers this week, with a promise to pay $3 million to end a dispute over the fees it imposes on those drivers. It is evidence that marketplaces will see more pressure to lower fees in order to retain workers. 

The ridesharing company has settled many similar suits and appears headed for many more settlements. We think the underlying signals point to a decline in the advantage marketplaces had over workers which allowed fees of up to 30 percent to be deducted from fares.

On-demand companies should be prepared to thrive on margins similar to retailers, such as Amazon and WalMart. Where a 25 percent or greater fee is deducted from a driver’s or a housekeeper’s earnings today, the on-demand market his headed for a sub-10 percent fee structure over the next decade.

Two factors will accelerate this trend:

1.) As purpose-specific marketplaces mature, such as ridesharing,  workers will diversify their listings, making themselves available on many systems. This is true of Uber and Lyft drivers, who typically use both apps simultaneously to get work. This means workers will be arbitraging work opportunities across many marketplaces. Purpose-specific markets will respond by consolidating related markets, which presents significant brand challenges. “Uber” has become a verb denoting ridesharing, but not housecleaning; It would have a very difficult time extending its brand into home-services. Price is the manageable factor in consolidating markets.

2.) Information efficiency favors the consumer, not the marketplace. As more data is applied to the problem of anticipating demand, consumers and workers alike will move to low-cost marketplaces in pursuit of better prices and pay rates. These twin demands put the marketplace in a lurch. In order to lower consumer costs while retaining an attractive workforce, the marketplace must lower its fees charged to those workers. 

As workers diversify, marketplace providers will compete for labor supply, lowering their fees charged to workers who focus on their service categories. Likewise, consumers will embrace marketplace brands that solve many in-home and on-demand needs,  leading to greater optimization within those marketplaces and lower fees charged to workers.

 

Tax Bill Lowers Taxes For On-Demand Workers, If They Incorporate

Several articles (New York Times, Bloomberg, and Lexology) in recent days have examined the potential for gig workers to cut their taxable income by 20 percent. There is, however, a trade-off. Workers must incorporate to gain the tax cut.

Incorporating voids the argument that giggers are employees. Corporations are not employees; they operate based on mutually agreed upon contracts with another company. On-demand companies fighting regulatory scrutiny around the world are eager to resolve the question of employment status as they grow. Their future margins depend on controlling costs.

The U.S. approach, to dangle a 20 percent tax break, is attractive to on-demand companies, but will it be enough for an Uber driver or TaskRabbit tasker, among many examples, to forego the employment relationship?

A quick back of the napkin calculation suggests that a typical Uber driver, who earns $2,126 a month (Glassdoor reported average), or $25,512 a year, would retain as much as $5,102.40 a year. That is $425.20 more in earnings per month. It sounds pretty good. 

Employment has other advantages, though, that offset tax savings. Losing employer health care subsidies, for instance, can increase raise the cost of health insurance by 20 percent or much more for an individual, even an incorporated individual. A contractor who paid $1,200 for health insurance for a family of four could pay $700 more monthly.

The tax break is not a guarantee of better pay for contractors who operate as an LLC or other “pass-through” entities. It makes contracting more attractive but is no silver bullet.

There’s more action afoot on this front. The Department of Labor announced last week that it is considering rules to allow individuals and small business join associations to get lower insurance prices. The catch here is that the participants must be incorporated. This is a path to lowering insurance prices, not a panacea.

Chris Opfer and Ben Penn of Bloomberg’s Labor and Employment Blog report that on-demand worker groups are skeptical of the Labor rulemaking:

“We believe it can be a good solution for our 75,000 drivers, but it’s unclear how these plans will be regulated and whether such plans could be distributed in a way that would allow members to qualify for credits under Obamacare,” [Independent Drivers Guild founder James] Conigliaro said. “An association plan couldn’t compete with a highly subsidized plan. On the other hand, drivers have special needs, and an association plan could be tailored to meet those needs and be very powerful. Either way, we’re considering a range of options.”

Giggers have many decisions about their business structure ahead.

 

GrubHub court signals drivers could be considered employees

JDSupra, the legal news service, points to a filing in Lawson v. GrubHub that bodes ill for labor marketplaces, such as GrubHub, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and, well, the rest of the on-demand economy. 

Last week, the plaintiff’s attorney, Shannon Liss-Riordan, submitted a Notice of Supplemental Authority that points to a pending decision by a New Jersey court to apply a restrictive standard to the categorization of workers. If that standard is applied in the GrubHub case, GrubHub will have to treat drivers as employees, as well as confine on-demand markets to specific industries. A disaster for the current model in on-demand economies.

The case, which is in the hands of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, could set the standard for the entire industry. In that case, a new organizing point for the engagement with customers, workers, and government.