TIME Drugs

Denver Activists Fight for ‘Social’ Marijuana Use

Skeptics say reformers are going too far

Denver residents are gearing up for another battle in the marijuana wars.

While activists in states like Nevada and Massachusetts are working on ballot measures to legalize recreational weed, a coalition in Colorado is collecting signatures to allow “limited social marijuana use.” As it stands, people in the state capital can consume marijuana only inside places like private homes or a rare “vape-friendly” hotel room. That, reformers say, can leave locals isolated and visitors not knowing where to turn.

“I enjoy drinking a beer but I don’t feel like I should always have to do it sitting in my home,” said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which spearheaded the effort to legalize pot in 2012. “And people who are visiting from out of town are able to purchase marijuana but are not able to consume it legally.”

Tvert, along with attorney Brian Vicente, are leading the initiative to get the issue on the ballot in November, calling their effort the Campaign for Limited Social Use. In order to qualify, they’ll need to collect the signatures of 4,726 registered Denver voters by early August. But some local leaders feel that advocates are pushing their luck this time.

Visitor guides for marijuana tourists explain that in the eyes of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, smoke is smoke, whether from a cigarette or a joint. That means blazing is not allowed in restaurants or most hotel rooms; a maximum of 25% of rooms may allow smoking at any one property and many inns don’t allow smoking at all. People can—inconspicuously but often illegally—consume edibles or use vaporize pens or “resort to a wet towel by the door.”

Tvert says that when he and other reform leaders like Vicente worked on the language for Amendment 64, they had intended for people to be able to consume marijuana more like people consume alcohol: While lighting up in the middle of the street was never something they fought for, they did want people to be able to consume it together in spaces reserved for adults. In cities such as Pueblo, local officials have interpreted the law to allow for “marijuana clubs,” while Denver officials more narrowly say consumption is not allowed in places “open or accessible to the public.”

Under the proposed ballot initiative, commercial establishments that sell alcohol on site would be able to allow marijuana consumption on their premises—which might mean someone vaping at the cocktail bar or smoking a joint in a fenced-in outdoor area. It would also allow for cannabis-only businesses—meaning they do not serve alcohol but do serve as a place to vape—and would give Denver the power to regulate them, setting restrictions on hours and locations.

Pushing for cannabis-only clubs would likely have been an easier fight. “Marijuana advocates in Denver have enjoyed a tremendous amount of public support over the past decade,” the Denver Post editorial board wrote in June, in a piece titled “Vaping in bars, smoking on rooftops? Public pot plan goes too far.”

“We bet,” they wrote, “Denver residents will see this measure as going too far.”

TIME celebrities

Kim Kardashian Talks Hillary Clinton, Gun Control and Feminism

"I guess people would call me a feminist," she said. "I just do what makes me comfortable"

Kim Kardashian got serious Tuesday night at an event in San Francisco, where she discussed gun control, feminism and whether the U.S. will elect its first female president next year.

Kardashian was interviewed by retired state judge LaDoris Cordell in an event organized by the prestigious Commonwealth Club of California, an institution founded in 1903 that has previously hosted speakers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. When Cordell asked Kardashian to give the audience an idea to change the world, she answered, “Gun control.” She also said she hopes Hillary Clinton will be the first female U.S. president. But when asked whether she’s a feminist, Kardashian said “I don’t like labels.” She said she wouldn’t use that word but didn’t distance herself from the phrase. “I guess people would call me a feminist,” she said. “I just do what makes me comfortable.”

The Keeping Up With the Kardashians star said she has consciously flipped the script on media objectification of women, and taken control of her own image. “You really can take that power and put out what you want people to look at,” she said. Even her new book of selfies, entitled Selfish, is an exercise in purposeful self-objectification, as she explained: “I’ve taken them … I’m proud of them … I have the control to put out what I want, even if I’m objectifying myself.” Kardashian also noted that the key to a good selfie is excellent lighting, and said that she doesn’t use filters, ever.

Kardashian revealed that she got her start in the fashion universe after she got her dad to buy her seven pairs of Timberland Manolo Blahnik shoes (at $750 each) after she saw Jennifer Lopez wearing them in a music video, then sold them on eBay for $2,400 each. She credits that experience as proof of her early love of “selling and hustling.”

The interview in the Commonwealth Club’s “Inforum” series is part of a string of slightly more substantial interviews Kardashian has been giving in the past few weeks, including an appearance on NPR and a cover story in Rolling Stone. Some people haven’t taken kindly to the appearances, with NPR listeners writing in to complain that they were “disgusted” and that “the Kardashians represent much of what is wrong with America today.”

There was plenty of self-promotion from Kardashian during the event in San Francisco, including a video ad played before the event for her app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. When responding to a question from Cordell about whether she promotes an “unhealthy standard of beauty,” Kardashian pivoted to speaking about how her hair care and makeup lines are affordably priced so they can be consumed by “the masses.”

But when Cordell asked Kardashian what she thought of backlash to her appearance on public radio—and at the Commonwealth Club event—she said, “I don’t know. And I really don’t care.” The crowd cheered for her, some yelling, “We love you, Mrs. West!” Still others just begged for her to take selfies with them.

TIME Books

Quiz: Can You Unpack These Portmanteaus?

The Mad Hatter's Teaparty. Illustration by John Tenn iel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (London, 1865).
Universal Images Group / Getty Images Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (London, 1865).

In celebration of Lewis Carroll, try your wits at unpacking blended words the author invented

Lewis Carroll didn’t just invent worlds, he also invented words. And the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland gave old words new meaning. The most famous example may be portmanteau, a name for a suitcase that folds into two parts, which he coined as a way to describe blended words like bromance and sharknado.

In the book that’s celebrating its 150th anniversary on July 4, Carroll also devised his own (semi-)nonsensical portmanteaus. As an homage to his cleverness and inventiveness, TIME has put together a quiz to test your knowledge of these fusion words, half from Carroll’s book and half from modern slang. Pick the root words and meaning for each.

Read more about the science behind portmanteau words in the latest issue of TIME.

TIME Books

Quiz: Which Alice in Wonderland Character Are You?

The Dodo solemnly presents Alice with a thimble Illustration by John Tenniel from the book Alices's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll published 1891
Universal Images Group / Getty Images The Dodo solemnly presents Alice with a thimble Illustration by John Tenniel from the book Alices's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Let TIME determine your Wonderland soul mate

Precisely 150 years ago, a fantastic story written by an Oxford mathematician starting circulating around England—and breaking all the Victorians’ rules about children’s literature. This unpredictable tale didn’t have pious morals; it had talking animals and death jokes and buckets upon buckets of nonsense.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has enchanted artists, thinkers and readers in the last century and a half, partly because of its wonderful clash of characters, from the curious to the brave to the chronically decapitating. Take TIME’s quiz and find out which one is most like you.

 

 

TIME language

This Is What ‘Jiggery-Pokery’ Means

Antonin Scalia
Dave Tulis—AP U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2014.

The word used by Justice Antonin Scalia in Thursday's Supreme Court ruling comes to us from the Scots

In a blistering dissent, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wielded an insult on Thursday that has caught the Internet’s attention. Arguing against his colleagues’ reasoning in their decision to allow health care subsidies nationwide, Scalia accused them of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.”

If you’re not familiar with the term, Jiggery-pokery dates back to at least the late 1800s, a rhythmic English phrase describing dishonest manipulation or nonsense, akin to hocus pocus, humbug, bambosh, baloney, berley (among the Australians), bunkum, hogwash (also known as eyewash), flapdoodle, flim-flam, flumadiddle, rubbish, galbanum (coming from a French word for empty representations), hooey, hot air, motormouthing, poppycock or malarkey, as Joe Biden is wont to say.

Editors at the Oxford English Dictionary traced this particular phrase back to the Scottish word jouk, which means to skillfully twist one’s body to avoid a blow—to manipulate oneself like an acrobat. Scalia, in this case, insinuates that his colleagues bend themselves and dissemble in order to work around the truth by misinterpreting words of the law.

Among the Scots, the word jouk led to the notion of joukery or jookery to describe underhanded dealing or trickery. Pawky is another Scottish word, meaning artfully shrewd. A pawk, on its own, is a trick. And by 1686, some inventive Scottish speakers had combined the words in the phrase joukery-pawkery, which they used to refer to clever trickery or slight of hand.

One might declare, as Sir Walter Scott did in his 19th century tale The Black Dwarf, that “There has been some jookery-paukery of Satan’s in a’ this!” From there, it was not a long linguistic path to becoming the jiggery-pokery that sent America running to their dictionaries this week.

Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford, recalls that Scalia pulled a similar trick in 2013, when he used the “colorful reduplicative colloquialism” argle-bargle. Both she notes, are uncommon in American English, while jiggery-pokery is more commonly used among the Brits than argle-bargle, which describes a disputable bandying of words, a bit like bafflegab.

Just as when Sen. Ted Cruz used the word “squish” to insult his rivals, Scalia’s dissent is a reminder that a life in government needn’t be lived while only using serious sounding words. Politicians can, after all, be fairly called snollygosters and quockerwodgers who flip-flop and kick tires—or, as Scalia might say, flapdoodlers who deceive themselves and others with their jibber-jabber.

TIME language

Oxford Dictionary Adds ‘Fo’ Shizzle,’ ‘Masshole’ and ‘Hot Mess’

Some of the terms in Oxford's latest update are much older than you might think

The Oxford English Dictionary is a historical dictionary, which means that when its editors add a phrase such as hot mess to their reference—as they did this week—they add every definition of the word they can find. The editors are like detectives, following phrases back to times when Anglo-Saxons were jabbering about peasants and overlords.

The quarterly update reveals that in the 1800s, for instance, a “hot mess” was a warm meal, particularly one served to a group like troops. In the 1900s, people used hot mess to refer to a difficult or uncomfortable situation. And in the 2000s, one used it to refer to Amy Schumer (or, as they put it, something or someone in extreme confusion or disorder).

Twerk, another new addition, might have been made famous by Miley Cyrus and a foam finger in 2013, but the editors traced its meaning back to 1820, when twirk referred to a twisting or jerking movement. The precise origin of the word is uncertain, the editors say, but it may be a blend of twist or twitch and jerk. Their definition: “To dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner, using thrusting movements of the bottom and hips while in a low, squatting stance.”

Here is a selection from the hundreds of words OED just added to its ranks, along with the earliest known usage and context provided by TIME.

autotune (v., 1997): to alter or correct the pitch of (a musical or vocal performance) using an auto-tune device, software, etc. The word has meant “to tune automatically” since 1958, when people were tuning radio transmitters rather than hilarious local news interviews.

backronym (n., 1983): a contrived explanation of an existing word’s origin, positing it as an acronym. When some guy tries to say that golf is an acronym of “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden,” that is a backronym (and clever nonsense). It more likely comes from the Dutch word kolf, which describes a stick used in sports.

boiler room (n., 1892): a place used as a center of operations for an election campaign, especially a room equipped for teams of volunteers to make telephone calls soliciting support for a party or candidate. This phrase has been used to describe an actual room that contains boilers, as on a steamship, since 1820.

bridge-and-tunnel (adj., 1977): of or designating a person from the outer boroughs or suburbs of a city, typically characterized as unsophisticated or unfashionable. The phrase was first used by Manhattanites to describe people they thought unworthy of their island.

cisgender (adj., 1999): designating someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth. This word exists to serve as an equal and complement to transgender. You can read all about it here.

FLOTUS (n., 1983): the First Lady of the United States. This is a true acronym, which appears to have been first applied to Nancy Reagan.

fo’ shizzle (phr., 2001): in the language of rap and hip-hop this means “for sure.” Shizzle, as a euphemism for sh-t, dates back to the ’90s. One can also be “the shizzle,” which is the best or most popular thing.

half-ass (v., 1954): to perform (an action or task) poorly or incompetently; to do (something) in a desultory or half-hearted manner. One can also insult someone by calling them an “ass,” referring to the horse-like creature who has appeared in stories as the type who is clumsy or stupid since the time of the Greeks.

koozie (n., 1982): an insulating sleeve that fits over a beverage can or bottle to keep it cold. Fun fact: that little cardboard thing one slips around a cup of coffee to keep it from burning one’s hand is known as a zarf.

Masshole (n., 1989): term of contempt for a native or inhabitant of the state of Massachusetts. This is what is known as a blended word, which Lewis Carroll called portmanteaus, naming them after a suitcase that unfolds into two equal parts.

sext (n., 2001): a sexually explicit or suggestive message or image sent electronically, typically using a mobile phone. Back in the 1500s, when someone referred to a “sext,” they were talking about a Christian worship ritual that involved chanting around midday.

stanky (adj., 1972): having a strong (usually unpleasant) smell. The OED editors offer the comparison to skanky, which means unattractive or offensive, as well as janky, which refers to something that is untrustworthy or of poor quality.

TIME Transportation

How Uber and Lyft Are Trying to Solve America’s Carpooling Problem

These startups are finally starting to look like true ride-sharing services

First, the bad news: carpooling has been on the decline in America for nearly four decades. That practice could be helping the environment and America’s commuters, who are needlessly stuck for hours each day on packed highways. Multiple people sharing a single ride to a common destination is a simple act that has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, ease traffic, lessen fossil fuel dependency, reduce stress on commuters, and even drive down rents in dense cities. Yet the practice fell out of favor after reaching a peak in the 1970s.

Now, the good news: popular tech companies Lyft and Uber are leading a wave of new services that have the potential to revive shared rides. “What fascinates me about these things is: can they move us closer toward a vision of an integrated public transit system?” asks Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “And can it move us closer to filling empty seats in vehicles?”

Despite referring to themselves as “ride-sharing” companies, Lyft and Uber have largely been in the business of what transportation experts call “ride-sourcing,” because they essentially provide the same service as taxis through their own platforms. “I’ve studied ride-sharing for a long time, and the definition of ride-sharing is really carpooling,” Shaheen says. “And a carpool is an incidental trip.” That is, it’s a trip that a driver was going to take regardless of whether anyone else was with them in that car.

The distinction isn’t just academic. When the thousands of drivers working for Uber and Lyft in San Francisco are picking up a single fare and taking them from Point A to Point B, it’s probable that they’re adding to unnecessary congestion, pollution and fuel consumption. But last summer, within hours of each other, the companies announced that they were rolling out UberPOOL and Lyft Line in San Francisco, passenger-pooling options that would give riders cheaper fares if they’d be willing to share their vehicle with strangers traveling a similar route.

The companies say customer interest has been high so far. Each company has since expanded the service to Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City, and Uber has launched POOL in Paris. Lyft says that 50% of rides in San Francisco are Lyft Line rides, and a little more than 20% of all Lyft rides in the city start or end within a quarter mile of commuter rail stops. “That’s notable,” says Shaheen. “It means people are taking this short trip in one of these vehicles and connecting it to a longer line-haul transit trip. It’s basically enabling somebody to not take a single-occupant vehicle for this long commute trip and to rethink how they commute.”

Uber crunched the numbers on their “matched trips” for one month in San Francisco, comparing them to the number of miles that vehicles would have traveled if all those rides had been taken individually. They estimated that UberPOOL rides taken between February and March amounted to 674,000 miles of saved driving. That’s the equivalent of 240 people driving round trip from L.A. to New York. “UberPOOL is really about trying to reinvent cities from a transportation perspective,” says product manager Brian Tolkin. “Part of that means making Uber so affordable that it’s really available to anyone and a better alternative to, say, owning a car.”

Of course, before these companies start patting themselves on the back for saving the environment, they have to offset the number of cars they’ve brought onto the road. They aren’t releasing data about that, and there is other crucial information missing. The most important piece, Shaheen says, is knowing what the people using these services were doing beforehand. If someone is now using a combination of Lyft Line and public rail rather that driving alone in a car from San Francisco to Cupertino, that represents a greater environmental offset than if that person was previously taking public rail and a public bus.

Carpooling took off in America during World War II, when the government asked people to start sharing rides to work so they could conserve rubber for the war effort. The practice gained popularity through the 1970s, spurred by volatile energy prices, employer-sponsored programs and the advent of HOV lanes. But as gas prices dropped, cars got cheaper and more people and companies decamped for far-out suburbs and exurbs, more workers began taking their own cars to the office. Carpooling became associated with the inconveniences of neighbors’ inflexible schedules, awkward reimbursements and a lack of privacy. Nearly one in four people shared a ride to work in the 1970s. By the time census workers asked about that practice in 2010, the number had dropped to about 10%.

It’s too early to tell if Lyft and Uber’s early efforts will reverse that trend. But it is clear that they are benefiting from a changed landscape. Smartphone ownership has exploded, allowing people to connect and share useful information about where they are. Familiarity with social networks can encourage strangers to trust each other. The algorithms matching riders and drivers—while keeping routes convenient—are constantly improving. And though car sales have continued to climb in recent years, younger urban residents say they’re less interested in driving and owning their own vehicle.

Perhaps the most promising trend line for these services is that Uber and Lyft are finally solving the problem that has derailed past attempts to solve America’s carpooling problem with technology. “When you have a new system with a really small number of people in it—which any system will when it’s new—there’s a very, very low probability that you’ll have a match between all the potential origins and destinations of a driver and a passenger,” says Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy. “So those systems that had tried to do that have been pretty uniformly unsuccessful, because they have a high failure rate.”

That’s what happened to Zimride, an early incarnation of Lyft. Among the key lessons for Zimride’s founders when they rebranded as Lyft: always have drivers available, lest you deter potential customers. “We’ve been able to build up a network that has enough density that it actually is getting to the point now where we do have a ton of people using it,” says Castor. “So we’ve kind of overcome that chicken and egg problem and we now can start doing really interesting things.”

Those experiments include “Driver Destination,” which allows a driver to specify where they’re headed and signal that they’re available to pick someone up. The app will only link the driver to a passenger going the same way. This type of trip can help eliminate wasted space in cars and potentially keep superfluous cars off the road–an efficiency that experts like Shaheen call the holy grail. “The next phase for Lyft is to look at how we can increase that commuter carpooling activity and to expand on our vision to make it so any time any driver is on the road, [they] can be using the empty seats in their cars to give rides to other people,” Castor says.

The key to long-term success may be money. For these services to truly take hold, drivers will need to see the upside of bringing a few strangers along for the ride. Old-fashioned carpooling was set up for passengers to reimburse a driver for just gas and wear and tear, a piddling bit of change per mile. “That’s just not enough to make people notice and think about doing that,” Castor says. “But if you could earn $15 on your way to work and your way home, that would probably raise your eyebrows.”

TIME devices

These Companies Are Making Smartwatches for Grandma

Products images courtesy of Lively

They can replace ugly emergency call devices

Jean Anne Booth says when her mother reached her 80s, she refused to wear an “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” style necklace.

“They’re ugly,” Booth says. “And that big button is stigmatizing. The first thought is, ‘Oh, that poor dear, they’re old and they’re not in control of their lives anymore.'”

But a device that elderly people can use to contact someone in case of a fall or other crisis is an important safety net, one that helps give their loved ones peace of mind. So Booth, a seasoned tech entrepreneur based in Austin, Texas, decided it was time for a makeover.

Booth’s company, Unaliwear, and other startups are now peddling smartwatches designed for the 65-and-over crowd. And in age when we expect our devices to be Swiss Army knives, they’re giving the devices capabilities beyond calling for help. Products from companies like San Francisco-based Lively and Unaliwear (which is still in the prototype phase) can do things like give users medication reminders, track their activity, text updates to their kids and even give them step-by-step directions to get home if the watch detects they’ve ended up in an unfamiliar location.

Most important, experts in the aging space say, is that the products do all this while looking like a normal accessory (and in some cases, a hip new one). After all, a wristwatch is something many older adults have worn all their lives.

“It normalizes the experience of getting old and makes people comfortable with the ability to get help without having to telegraph it to everybody,” says Stephen Johnston, co-founder of Aging2.0, an organization focused on supporting innovations for older adults.

Lively, an alumni of Aging2.0’s accelerator program, started shipping its “safety watch” in January. The timepiece looks an awful lot like the Apple Watch, with a simple, square screen and nice, big print. It comes as part of a $50 hardware set with four activity sensors and a hub that all communicate using cellular and Bluetooth signals. One of those activity sensors typically goes on a pillbox, for instance, so if a user has taken their medication, the sensor will tell the smartwatch, which won’t bother to remind the person wearing it. But if the pillbox hasn’t moved, the user will get an alert.

Lively CEO Iggy Fanlo says the traditional medical-alert pendants are so detested in the senior community that only about 13% of the people who buy them actually wear them throughout the day, according to a 2010 study from the Journal of Gerontology and Geriatrics, and that many often go unused for months at a time. Most of the time when older adults fall, they’re with someone and don’t require a team of firemen to remedy the situation, he says.

“It’s pretty clear that a medical alert product shouldn’t be a product,” says Fanlo. “It should be a feature.”

In the case of Lively’s watch, a user can press a button signaling that they need help. The watch pings the hub, which connects to a dispatcher who asks if they’re okay. The user can say they’re fine (if they pressed the button by accident or help has already wandered by), ask the dispatcher to contact a family member or neighbor on file, or request emergency responders. Users pay about $30 a month or more for access to this service.

Booth’s product, which costs $299 and generated $110,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, can detect a fall using an accelerometer, and will activate an emergency protocol if the user is non-responsive. The watch is a classic silver piece of (digital) jewelry which her company designed with discretion in mind. Before the watch makes any noises out loud—reminding a person to take their pills, for instance—the watch will vibrate. The user can tap the device to make sure it stays silent in the middle of a church service; it can also directly speak to a user’s hearing aid rather than out loud. It comes with both the ability to connect via Wi-Fi or cellular signal, which is important given that many older people do not have Wi-Fi in their homes. It took comes with a required monthly service fee starting around $30.

While few octogenarians own smartphones that could provide many of the same functions these watches do, Minda Aguhob, founder of an early-stage startup called Peakfoqus that is also building a senior-focused watch app, says that it’s wrong to think that older people won’t embrace technology.

“These features help them stay connected with their families,” Aguhob says. “Families who are supporting them living independently.”

Nearly 90% of those over age 65 say they want to remain at home as long as possible. Technology can help fill the gaps when kids or caretakers can’t always be available—or when older people don’t want their helpers constantly hovering around. “A lot of innovation is starting to come into the aging space,” says Johnston. At a recent Aging2.0 summit in San Francisco, for instance, startups showcased digital sign-in kiosks for nursing homes, rolling robots that encourage long walks and programs that simplify the Internet for late adopters.

Smartwatches, Johnston says, are just one product of many to come. “The aging space hasn’t necessarily been on the radar of these technology companies in the past,” he says. “It’s a really exciting time.”

TIME Labor

Why the California Ruling on Uber Should Frighten the Sharing Economy

The question at the center of several similar cases is likely worth billions

This week a ruling from the California Labor Commission was made public because popular ride-sourcing company Uber appealed it. A San Francisco-based driver named Barbara Ann Berwick brought a case alleging that she is an employee, not an independent contractor as Uber claims. It emerged that the commission ruled in her favor, saying the company owed her $4,152 in expenses. But this could lead to rulings worth much more.

Filed in March, the ruling is non-binding, has no legal bearing on any other drivers, and won’t force any money to change hands. But Uber’s decision to appeal will now move the fight to California’s court system where — along with several similar lawsuits pending in the state—it could set a binding precedent for a multi-billion-dollar question plaguing the booming on-demand economy: Do such companies have employer-employee relationships with tens of thousands of American workers?

That might sound like a mundane bureaucratic distinction, but it’s a concrete reality for the drivers, personal shoppers and lunch deliverers who enjoy the flexibility of setting their own hours but do not get standard employee benefits like overtime pay and worker’s compensation. In California, unlike most other states, employers are explicitly on the hook for reimbursing employees for all expenses necessary to do the job. And if the workers like Berwick win their cases, there are more than 15,000 other drivers in San Francisco alone who might want to be reimbursed too.

“Uber has essentially shifted to its workers all the costs of running a business, the costs of owning a car, maintaining a car, paying for gas,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based attorney who has a class-action case pending against Uber in California federal court. “Uber has saved massive amounts …. It’s important that the labor laws be enforced so that the companies can’t take advantage of workers that way. Uber’s a $50-billion company and I think it can afford to bear the responsibilities of an employer.” She expects her trial will be underway by next year and will make arguments for class certification later this summer, saying this ruling “could be a lot of help.”

In a statement to TIME, an Uber spokeswoman said that its drivers embrace their status as independent contractors. “It’s important to remember that the number one reason drivers choose to use Uber is because they have complete flexibility and control,” she says. “The majority of them can and do choose to earn their living from multiple sources, including other ride sharing companies. We have appealed this ruling.”

Liss-Riordan has also filed a class-action case on behalf of workers for house-cleaning company Homejoy, as well as delivery service companies Postmates and Try Caviar, arguing that they have been misclassified as independent contractors when they should be treated like employees. Other cases are pending against ride-sourcing platform Lyft and grocery-delivery company Instacart. “Instacart does all it can to distance itself from the employer-employee relationship,” lawyer Bob Arns told TIME when that case was filed. “Why does a company want to do that? It’s to keep the bottom line lower, to unfairly compete against other companies. That’s the crux of our case.” Instacart did not respond to a request for comment for that story.

The growing independent-contractor workforce is a key reason that companies like Instacart and Uber have been able to grow so quickly, because the cost of organizing independent contractors is much less than hiring employees. There’s no requirement to pay unemployment tax or ensure that workers are making at least minimum wage. In many cases, the companies don’t have to pay for the smartphones or data plans workers use on the job. They don’t have to deal with the costly spools of red tape that come with federal and state withholdings and healthcare and anti-discrimination laws.

David Rosenfeld, a labor law expert and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, says a California superior court will likely set a trial date in a few months. If the judge agrees with driver Berwick, the rulings could be appealed back and forth all the way up to the California Supreme Court. That process could take years. But the California courts have been sympathetic to workers and Rosenfeld says its unlikely the state’s highest authority would overturn a ruling made in their favor. In the meantime, he says, lawyers like Liss-Riordan can “show the ruling around” as evidence that helps build their cases, if not a precedent to use in court.

“This is big, high stakes problem for them,” Rosenfeld says. While Uber emphasizes that the labor commission ruling is only about the status of a single driver, he notes that if Uber beats Berwick in court that doesn’t bar other drivers from bringing similar claims. Liss-Riordan says she has been contacted by more than 1,000 Uber drivers who believe they’ve been wronged. And her doors have been open to other “1099 economy” workers who want to file their own claims.

“A lot of companies are watching Uber and seeing whether it’s going to be allowed to get away with this,” she says. “These companies want to have it all. They want to have control over their workforce so they can provide this consistent quality service they sell to the public but at the same time deny it has any obligations to these workers that it is treating as their employees.”

How much control companies like Uber have over these workers will be central to the cases. Does their ability to kick drivers off the platform, their ability to set rates, their mandates to follow certain protocols amount to an employer-employee relationship? Uber has repeatedly argued that they are not a transportation company but merely a technology platform that helps willing drivers connect with passengers willing to pay for a ride.

But in denying a summary judgment in the class-action case earlier this year, District Judge Edward Chen wrote that Uber’s claim that it is not a “transportation company” is “fatally flawed.” In the March ruling, the labor commissioner wrote that Uber is “involved in every aspect of the operation.” A 2012 ruling from the labor commission, however, found that another Uber driver was, in fact, an independent contractor and describes Uber as a “technology company.” In the statement, Uber says similar commissions in five other states have come to the same conclusion.

These cases apply only to workers in California. So the endgame could look a few different ways if these on-demand companies lose their cases, all of which would require a change in business models. Operations could be shut down or take a different approach in California. Companies could start shouldering the costs of treating their armies of workers as legal employees. Or they could change the way they operate—giving up control over their workers and therefore control over the quality of their services—in order to keep treating them as independent contractors.

The latter, Rosenfeld says, is what FedEx recently decided to do after paying $228 million to settle claims from 2,000 pickup and delivery drivers in California who alleged that they were mislabeled as independent contractors. That high ticket price was directly related to California’s law requiring expense reimbursement. But making the decision to give up oversight is not an easy one. “You lose control of your brand,” he says. “And you lose control of your model.”

Uber v. Berwick California Labor Commission Ruling

TIME Gadgets

7 Ways These Rolling Robots With Screens Could Change Our Lives

Suitable Technologies
Suitable Technologies A Microsoft employee uses a Suitable Technologies BeamPro robot to remotely go to work.

They're not just a funny thing to feature on sitcoms

Most days, here are no actual humans manning the Suitable Technologies store on the main drag in Palo Alto, Calif. Instead, the salespeople remotely “beam in” from places like Hawaii and New York to operate the company’s roving BeamPro robots, five-foot tall rolling devices with speakers and screens on top. One of the robots has a leaf blower attached. Another one does a routine where the “pilot” drives it across the street to buy ice cream for potential buyers.

It’s a cute gimmick. But as these machines get more advanced, they could seriously change the way distance affects people’s lives. Here are seven ways how:

Helping families connect to each other and their homes. In a recent episode of Modern Family, Phil gets grounded by an ear infection and is unable to return home for his daughter Alex’s graduation party. So he sets up a robot (this $2,500 one made by Double Robotics) to act as his surrogate.

The subplot makes it clear that this early generation of wheeled machines has limitations—like not being great at going down stairs. But one can also see how much richer the connection is than handing a phone around from person to person. And you might notice that no one else has to sacrifice what they’re doing to take care of faux Phil, like what happens to the relative who gets stuck lugging a Skyping relative around on a laptop.

Today in the Suitable Technologies store is actual breathing human Tom Wyatt, a VP of sales at the company. He talks about how people have used the robots—both the $17,000 enterprise version and the $2,000 consumer version—to be virtual wedding guests and family reunion-ers. He has one in his house that his daughter, off at college, uses to have dinner with the family or sit around watching a San Francisco Giants baseball game with her brothers.

“We’re just hanging out,” he says. “Just like she’s here.”

Improving elder care. Other customers have bought the robots to stay better connected to aging parents. Because machines like the BeamPro can be controlled remotely, those aging parents never have to turn it on, control it or remember to charge it. Kids can check in to make sure they’re okay or that they’ve taken their medicine. Various robot manufacturers are making deals with assisted living facilities, who are touting these gadgets as an amenity that helps keep families connected once someone needs full-time care. There’s more potential for interaction than with a phone or computer screen, too — the robot can take a stroll down the hall with Nana, for instance. As people get older, they often get isolated. Social interactions that can really simulate having a human in the room could have serious health benefits.

Making the business world smaller. As these robots get cheaper, there will be more consumer usage. But the early adopters have been big businesses like Google who are using them to attract the best talent (“No need to move to Mountain View!”) and make collaboration better when all the key people can’t be in the room together. Though there are various companies making these roaming machines, Wyatt says he sees Suitable’s biggest competitor as traditional video conferencing. The situations where the robots thrive are ones where there needs to be movement or a greater sense of presence.

Rolling robots have given keynote speeches, moving around the stage like speakers would stroll. Convention centers have purchased them so they can rent them out by the hour to people who want to be at a conference for a half-day instead of shelling out for the plane ticket, hotel and so forth. Business owners who need to keep an eye on their factories in China have used them to check up on things so they have to make the trip half as often.

Giving recruiters an edge: The football coach at Stanford University, Wyatt says, uses robots for recruiting.

“You’re in a situation where you have a limited number of visits that each guy can do to each campus,” he says, alluding to NCAA regulations. “So this kid is in Iowa—or wherever—can beam in, drive around the athletic building, look at the weight facilities, plug in the 4G card, drive over to the practice facility, drive over to the stadium.”

Touring schools by robot could become standard practice for kids in the future, making the process of choosing a college far more economical. Tech companies and other businesses, meanwhile, can use the same scheme to lure future employees.

Making culture accessible. Institutions like the Smithsonian have used rolling robots to help bring the museum experience to disabled people. Rolling along viewing paintings and artifacts with a docent, people from all over the world can see exhibits up close. As machines get more rugged and have more robust connectivity, Yellowstone or Yosemite could have them on hand for visitors to explore national parks. Machines like the BeamPro come with technology similar to the type cars use to brake automatically when the vehicle detects something in front of it—like a kid running into the street—which can help make sure no one is driving these off cliffs.

Changing real estate. Real estate agents are using rolling robots to give people virtual tours of spaces they might want to purchase, like the couple from New York interested in a San Francisco apartment.

“People say, I’d love to buy that place, but what does my view look like? And what do the amenities look like?” says Wyatt. Right now, Suitable’s machines are being used mostly in static places—like a condo complex in Hawaii. But the robots could be popped in and out of an agent’s trunk and used all over the place, so long as they shelled out for a 4G connection or had listings with stable Wi-Fi.

Outsourcing jobs. At the Suitable Technologies store, the jobs are outsourced to make a point. But there are other human jobs that could be outsourced via rolling robots to save companies money, which could be unpopular with locals. Take the example of a security guard wandering around a parking lot on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park. A computer can’t do that job, but “there’s a guy in Nebraska that would probably be very willing to have that job and at a lower wage than anyone would around here,” Wyatt says.

Teachers could command a classroom remotely and wander down the hall to the faculty lounge. Specialist doctors could go up and down a hallway visiting bedridden patients, rather than being reliant on video equipment in every room. Wyatt has sold some robots to clinicians who want to be in more than one place.

“It’s that freedom and control piece that makes a difference,” he says. “It’s not that the traditional video conferencing system doesn’t work. It’s just limiting.”

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