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Uber fined $650 million by New Jersey over driver classification

The ride-hailing company is challenging the fine and says "drivers are independent contractors in New Jersey and elsewhere."

Uber is hit with a multimillion-dollar tax bill.
Angela Lang/CNET

New Jersey is the latest state to say Uber's drivers should be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. The state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development said that because of this misclassification, the ride-hailing company owes it roughly $650 million in unemployment taxes and disability insurance, according to Bloomberg Law.

The Department of Labor reportedly has been trying to get unpaid employment taxes from Uber going back as far as 2015, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg Law. It said the company owed the state $523 million in overdue taxes along with another $119 million in interest and penalties for the last four years. Uber disputes these findings.

"We are challenging this preliminary but incorrect determination," an Uber spokesman said in an email. "Because drivers are independent contractors in New Jersey and elsewhere."

Driver classification is an issue that government regulators have been taking a closer look at over the past year. California passed a law in September that could require Uber and other on-demand companies to reclassify their drivers as employees instead of independent contractors. The law is set to go into effect Jan. 1. New York, Oregon and Washington state have considered similar legislation

Uber, Lyft and several other tech companies have vowed to fight the California law, collectively putting more than $90 million behind a ballot initiative that'll take the issue to voters next November. Many drivers have said this move is a slap in the face as they struggle to earn a living wage.

Uber's and Lyft's business models depend on bringing aboard hundreds of thousands of independent contractors, whose labor is typically cheaper than that of employees. That's because Uber and Lyft drivers supply and maintain their own cars and also pay for their own health care and benefits, such as sick days or overtime pay.

"New Jersey is sending a message that the state's labor laws aren't dictated by corporations," Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said in a statement. "It's a stinging rebuke of the architects of the gig economy, and we hope it permeates across other sectors." 

Even if Uber's drivers were determined to be employees rather than independent contractors, Uber said the $650 million New Jersey tax fine would be too high -- particularly if it's based on what the company has earned in the state. Uber didn't disclose the revenue it generated in New Jersey over the past four years, but its combined revenue for all the markets where it operated in 2018 was $11.3 billion.

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