TIME politics

San Francisco Lawmakers Propose Tougher Restrictions on Airbnb Rentals

Airbnb
Airbnb

The proposal would take a trailblazing regulation measure passed last year and make it more restrictive

At a meeting of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, a local lawmaker returned to an issue that sparked long and contentious hearings in 2014: regulation of the city’s short-term rentals facilitated by Airbnb and similar companies.

“This law is a mess,” David Campos, one of the 11 board members, said of a measure passed last year that legalized short-term rentals. “It’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up. And we need to clean it up as soon as possible.”

Campos introduced legislation that would place stricter limitations on how often people can rent out rooms or homes, putting a “hard cap” of 90 days on every property, regardless of whether the host is present. It would also require companies such as Airbnb to share data about rentals, ban rentals in certain neighborhoods that have been zoned for no commercial use and give disturbed neighbors—like ones living next door to people who rent out units illegally—the right to sue for damages.

A spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement to TIME that the new proposal is just creating tension over an issue that was settled in 2014.

“Elected officials spent three years debating all aspects of this issue before passing comprehensive legislation, but some folks still don’t think you should be able to occasionally share the home in which you live,” said Christopher Nulty. “We should all be striving to make the law work but these ad hoc rules and this new bill just make things more confusing.”

Campos’ measure has been co-sponsored by two other members of the board.

Under the law passed last year, residents in San Francisco are allowed to rent out their properties an unlimited amount of days if the host is present, while there is a 90-day cap on un-hosted rentals. The different limits were aimed at maximizing the economic potential for residents who depend on sites like Airbnb for income, while making it impossible for landlords to put rental units on those sites full-time. Before the law passed, all short-term rentals were technically illegal; rentals shorter than 30 days were banned.

MORE: 5 Things You Never Knew About the Sharing Economy

The problem, Campos says, is that the city planning commission, which is charged with enforcing the law, says there’s no method of determining when hosts are at home sleeping in their own beds, meaning they cannot monitor whether people are respecting the limits. Campos called the law a “paper tiger” that is “unenforceable” because it has no teeth.

Local lawmakers have pushed for limits on short-term rentals to make sure the sharing economy doesn’t cannibalize existing housing stock. “The concern is you take your unit off the market,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, who supports a 90-day cap.

In recent years, San Francisco has been in the midst of a housing crisis, with the amount of people wanting to live in the city exceeding the apartments that are available—which has sent rental prices skyrocketing. The law was partly aimed at stopping landlords from taking much-needed units off the market because renting them out every night on sites like Airbnb was more valuable than collecting a monthly check. It also legitimized a business popular with tourists and locals.

Kim points out that 90 days per year breaks down to about a week per month, or could be the length of a summer when a college student is out of town. It’s sufficient for what one might consider “regular” hosts who use Airbnb, she says. “If you’re doing more than 90 days, you’re running a business,” she says. Kim believes that people in that camp should apply for a bed-and-breakfast license, which requires hosts to meet more requirements like installing exit signs.

With the aim of making oversight more feasible, Campos’ proposal would require platforms like Airbnb to give the city data about how often properties are being rented through their sites. “Without that data, there’s simply no way of knowing,” Campos says. He adds that Airbnb has responded to previous requests for such data by demanding the city subpoena them and notes that Airbnb has fought such subpoenas in states like New York.

Under the current law, which went into effect in February, all hosts must register with the city before listing a property on a site like Airbnb. Campos says that as of two weeks ago only a few dozen residents have registered, while there are “thousands” of rooms and units being listed on short-term rental sites. In an attempt to incentivize compliance with the law, the proposal would also fine hosting platforms that list unregistered units in San Francisco to the tune of $1,000 per day.

“All of us support short-term rentals,” Campos said of the board members during Tuesday’s meeting. “We know that short-term rentals are part of San Francisco, that they are here to stay … That said, I think that those of us that have been talking about this believe there should be reasonable, fair regulation of this industry,” he continued. “The law that was passed last year does not constitute what we would like to see.”

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TIME Courts

Homejoy, Postmates, and Try Caviar Sued Over Labor Practices

The complaints allege that workers at the on-demand startups are employees and not independent contractors

Three more companies in the exploding on-demand economy have been sued over their labor practices, a day after it emerged a class action lawsuit was pending against grocery startup Instacart.

The lawsuits filed on Thursday contend that workers for house-cleaning company Homejoy, as well as delivery service companies Postmates and Try Caviar, have been misclassified as independent contractors when they should be treated like employees. The class action complaints were filed in California’s Northern District Court, where similar lawsuits are already pending against Uber, Lyft and Instacart.

Postmates and Try Caviar are both primarily in the business of facilitating delivery from restaurants that don’t normally deliver. Customers places orders for food through their apps and orders are dispatched to couriers who pick up and deliver the food to the customers’ homes or offices, using their own personal transportation. On Wednesday, Postmates announced it had partnered with Starbucks to deliver food and beverages in Seattle.

The cleaners working for Homejoy use their own cleaning supplies and transportation to do jobs they get through Homejoy. The companies take a cut of the proceeds, whether a fare, an hourly wage or delivery fee.

The lawyer behind many of the cases is Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based labor lawyer who specializes in worker classification. She first filed the case against Uber on behalf of drivers in 2013, which claims thousands of workers in California are owed for expenses like gas and vehicle maintenance.

The publicity from that case has put her much in demand from people working similar jobs at other startups who believe they are being treated unjustly, she says. Today she filed separate class action complaints on behalf of workers for those three San Francisco-based companies. If the court approves the class, the suits could potentially affect thousands around the U.S.

“When companies have control over their workers, when they get to dictate how they should act, when they get to decide whether they can work or not work,” Liss-Riordan says, “those are employees. These are the workers carrying out the services that these companies provide. So these workers are entitled to the protections of the law, to get their expenses reimbursed, to be guaranteed overtime, to make [at least] minimum wage.”

Homejoy and Postmates did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article. Try Caviar declined to comment, as did Instacart about its own pending litigation.

One of the key issues in the case is determining exactly what business these companies are in. These on-demand companies say they are merely middle-man technology companies connecting people who want a service with someone willing to provide it. Homejoy, for instance, bills itself as a marketplace where people willing to clean homes can connect with people who want their homes cleaned through their platform. Its terms of service are explicit:

THE COMPANY DOES NOT PROVIDE CLEANING SERVICES, AND THE COMPANY IS NOT A CLEANING SERVICE PROVIDER. IT IS UP TO THE THIRD PARTY CLEANING SERVICE PROVIDER TO OFFER CLEANING SERVICES WHICH MAY BE SCHEDULED THROUGH USE OF THE SOFTWARE OR SERVICE.

But other marketing materials and advertisements often send conflicting messages. Homejoy uses first person pronouns on their website, telling potential users: “If you’re not 100% satisfied with your cleaning, we’ll come back and re-clean it!” If Liss-Riordan can prove in court that companies like Homejoy and Uber are in fact cleaning companies or transportation companies and not just middle-men that could help convince the courts that the workers are in fact employees.

“You can’t name yourself out of employer status,” says Harvard law professor Benjamin Sachs. “The realities matter because if Uber is really a transportation company—and by that we mean they’re involved in many aspects of actually providing rides, screening drivers, hiring drivers, setting rates—that’s like a taxi company with a new technology. That doesn’t change anything important about the nature of employment.” Uber has said it doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

The complaints contend that workers for each of the platforms are owed reimbursements for expenses like vehicle maintenance, cleaning supplies and gas they used to get from job to job, as well as overtime and in some cases minimum wage. The suits against Postmates and Try Caviar also contend that the companies are unfairly competing, by not paying for expenses that delivery companies with employee couriers would, like unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation.

“There seems to be this new wave of companies coming up that seem to be copying one another and thinking that it’s okay to do this because they call themselves technology companies,” Liss-Riordan says. “There’s nothing new about this. These workers should be entitled to the protections of employees.”

TIME Drugs

New Senate Bill Could Solve Medical Marijuana’s Tax Problems

Katy Steinmetz / TIME Bryan and Lanette Davies pose for a portrait at their "Christian-based" medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento in February 2014.

The bill aimed at healing the sick could save dispensary owners lots of money

When Bryan and Lanette Davies got an $875,000 bill from the Internal Revenue Service, they didn’t pay it. Instead, they took the IRS to court, arguing that a 1982 law meant to prevent drug traffickers from deducting business expenses should not apply to Canna Care, their small “Christian-based” medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento—or any other medical marijuana dispensary legal under state law.

The couple is in the midst of a years-long legal battle over these expenses, arguing that marijuana dispensaries should be treated like most other small businesses and be allowed to deduct payroll, rent and health benefits from their taxable income.

But a new bill introduced in the Senate could help bring their trial to a conclusion.

On March 10, three Senators introduced a historic bill called the CARERS Act that would end the federal ban on medical marijuana, clearing up the discrepancy between federal law that considers pot an illegal drug and the 23 state laws that sanction the use of medical weed. The bill explicitly does several things: It would reschedule marijuana as a drug with known medical uses to allow for research. It would allow banks to work with dispensaries—both medical and recreational—without fear of being prosecuted for money laundering. And it would create an exception in the Controlled Substances Act that essentially says it doesn’t apply to medical marijuana in states where that substance has been legalized. That last part may help solve legal pot’s tax problem.

An obscure bit of the tax code known as 280E states that businesses in violation of the Controlled Substances Act can’t take a tax deduction or receive any credits for any expenses connected with their trafficking of illegal drugs, which is what medical marijuana dispensaries are currently doing in the eyes of the federal government. (Due to a tax court ruling, the one deduction they can take is for the cost of goods sold). The costs can be crippling, and politicians have joined dispensary owners in saying that prohibiting cocaine dealers from writing off the boats they bought to ship the drug, as one lawyer put it, is not the same as businesses deducting quotidian operating costs while on the right side of the law in their state.

In 2010, a group of Congress members, including Colorado Rep. Jared Polis and former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, sent letters to the IRS asking the agency to interpret the tax code in a way that would allow medical marijuana businesses to be taxed on net income instead of gross income. This is what the IRS told those members of Congress in response:

Because neither section 280E nor the Controlled Substances Act makes exception for medically necessary marijuana, we lack the authority to publish the guidance that you request. The result you seek would require the Congress to amend either the Internal Revenue Code or the Controlled Substances Act.

Legal experts have said that the IRS’ hands are essentially tied. If this bill passes, University of Denver’s Sam Kamin says that may be enough for the IRS to loosen the rope and issue that guidance. “It definitely puts marijuana on much sounder footing and makes much clearer what the legal rights of marijuana businesses are,” he says.

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, who worked with the Senators’ offices on the Hill to craft the bill, is more absolute in his interpretation: “It resolves the 280E issue.”

Both of them agree that the bill has the potential to affect other areas of life too, in states where medical marijuana is legal. It may prevent people from being fired for using marijuana as medicine. Parents may no longer lose custody of their kids for having medical marijuana in the house. Known medical-marijuana users could be allowed to legally own a firearm; if a drug user or addict currently possesses a firearm, that’s punishable by up to 10 years of jail time.

Malik Burnett, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance—which also had a hand in crafting the bill—cautions that these are only potential interpretations of a potential law and that separate, explicit legislation should be passed if reform advocates want to definitively solve these issues. But he says the bill would enable lawyers to make stronger arguments to protect clients who use medical marijuana. “You would certainly have more solid ground to stand on,” he says.

Since being introduced, the bill has gained two cosponsors: Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and, as of Monday, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Despite bipartisan support for the bill, it remains unclear whether it will be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The Davieses, in an interview for a previous article on their legal battle, said that they not only see themselves as a legitimate business but as a force of positive change in society. Lanette Davis said she felt they were being unfairly punished. “It has to do with taking care of the sick and ill. Jesus Christ made a statement that all people should care for one another, and this is our way of taking that to our community,” Lanette said. “What we try very hard to provide is a way for people to get well.”

TIME justice

Lawsuit Claims Instacart ‘Personal Shoppers’ Should Be Classified as Employees

Kaitlin Myers a shopper for Instacart studies her smart phone as she  shops for a customer at Whole Foods in Denver.
Cyrus McCrimmon—Denver Post/Getty Images Instacart shopper Kaitlin Myers navigates through the aisles at Whole Foods in Denver.

A case filed in California's Northern District Court claims that the grocery delivery service owes workers for expenses

A new lawsuit alleges that Instacart, an on-demand grocery delivery service valued at $2 billion, misclassifies its workers as independent contractors to avoid paying expenses like overtime, reimbursements for gas and workers’ compensation.

The class action complaint, which was filed on Jan. 9th but has not been previously reported, describes Instacart’s business practices as “unethical, oppressive and unscrupulous” and seeks damages for anyone who has worked as a “shopper delivery person” for the company since 2012.

The complaint, which contains allegations similar to those in two ongoing lawsuits also pending in California’s Northern District Court against ride-app companies Uber and Lyft, is the latest potential legal hurdle for the surging on-demand economy.

“Instacart does all it can to distance itself from the employer-employee relationship,” says Bob Arns, whose San Francisco-based Arns Law Firm brought the suit on behalf of workers including Dominic Cobarruviaz, who was injured in an accident while delivering groceries for Instacart. “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.”

The suit contends that Instacart, which is two-and-a-half years old and operates in 15 markets around the U.S., has violated labor laws due to the workers’ “misclassification, unpaid workers’ compensation insurance, unpaid tax contributions, unreimbursed expenses, and related misconduct.” The complaint also claims that the company has committed fraud, knowing workers should be classified as employees, and used unfair business practices.

“[There is] this narrative that I think companies like Instacart and Uber and Lyft want to become more mainstream,” says Jonathan Davis, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, “that somehow these antiquated laws don’t apply to these types of work relationships. And frankly it’s ludicrous. Just because a worker is directed and controlled by an algorithm that comes through a phone as opposed to a foreman doesn’t do anything to change the fundamental relationship of employment.”

Instacart has not responded to requests for comment. The case names the company as Maplebear Inc., which does business as Instacart.

Instacart customers order groceries through a smartphone app, choosing items they want from their preferred store. The app then relays grocery orders to workers, who shop for the products and deliver them using their own vehicles in as little as an hour or two. The company takes a cut from a delivery fee and gets an undisclosed amount from retailers that customers buy groceries from through the app.

In late February, the case was assigned to District Judge Edward Chen, who is also hearing the Uber case, which claims that Uber drivers are employees rather than independent contractors and should be reimbursed for expenses like gas, insurance and vehicle maintenance. On March 11, Chen denied Uber’s request for a summary judgment ruling that drivers are independent contractors, saying that a jury would have to decide whether the drivers are employees or “partners,” as the company calls them. In his ruling, the judge said Uber’s claim that it is a “technology company” and not a “transportation company” is “fatally flawed.”

Instacart’s CEO Apoorva Mehta has likewise said that Instacart is a software company, not a grocery delivery company.

Arns believes that the terms the company sets out, which customers must agree to, could pass liability along to the person ordering groceries. If Instacart is “solely a communication platform” for facilitating a connection between the customer and the shopper, he says, damages from an accident or injury like the one Corbarruviaz had could be the responsibility of the customer who started the communication.

The suit rejects the idea that Instacart is simply a middle man, claiming that the company “is in the business of providing online grocery shopping and delivery service.” The suit seeks to define the class as everyone who “performed grocery delivery service” for Instacart from Jan. 1, 2012 to the present. As of June 2014, about 1,000 people were reportedly registered to shop and deliver groceries for the company. Arns estimates that the size of the class could be 10,000.

The growing independent-contractor workforce is a key reason that companies like Instacart and Uber have been able to grow so quickly. In January, Forbes put Instacart at the top of its “America’s Most Promising Companies” list. The cost of organizing independent contractors is much less than hiring employees. The companies who operate this way don’t have to pay unemployment tax or overtime, or ensure that workers are making at least minimum wage. They don’t have to pay for their own fleet of vehicles or costs associated with operating them since the workers use their personal cars. In many cases, they don’t have to pay for the smartphones or data plans workers need to do the jobs.

Arns and Davis say that after the costs of being a worker for Instacart are added up, many of them are not making minimum wage. Unlike drivers on platforms like Uber and Lyft, who can log in to work and log out at any time, personal shoppers for Instacart set their own hours in advance and work in shifts.

“We can’t sacrifice the gains that have been made over time in this country to create good, solid middle-class jobs simply at the altar of expediency and technology,” Davis says. They contend that the lawsuit is beneficial for companies in the sharing economy in the long run, even if it ends up costing them millions. “We want to see Instacart succeed,” says Arns, “and it can succeed by complying with the law.”

Corbarruviaz v. Maplebear, Inc.

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TIME Drugs

These Five States Could Legalize Marijuana in 2016

marijuana california
Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images A vendor weighs marijuana for card-carrying medical marijuana patients attending Los Angeles' first-ever cannabis farmer's market in Los Angeles, July 4, 2014.

Nevada's vote is set and advocates believe they can get similar measures on the ballot in four other states

On Friday, Nevada lawmakers adjourned without voting on a petition submitted by residents to legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol. That means the initiative is going on the ballot in 2016, making Nevada the first state to officially be voting on pot legalization in the next election.

“Voters will have the opportunity to end marijuana prohibition next year and replace it with a policy that actually makes sense,” Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said in a statement. “Law enforcement officials will be able to spend their time addressing more serious crimes, and adults will no longer be punished simply for using marijuana.”

If voters approve the initiative, Nevada will become the fifth state—after Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska—to have a legal weed market. But chances are it won’t be the only state considering the option. Here are the four other states that marijuana law reformers are betting will have legalization votes on the ballot in 2016:

California: Groups like MPP and the Drug Policy Alliance are hard at work crafting the language for a ballot initiative in the Golden State. Issues like production limits and whether home-growing is allowed can divide voters and established medical marijuana businesses. For advocates, framing the initiative for success is particularly important given California’s influence as a regulatory laboratory.

“California was the first state to adopt a medical marijuana law and it inspired states around the country to adopt similar laws,” Tvert says. “It’s a state that carries a lot of weight nationwide. It’s a massive population center and it’s a very diverse state.” While California is packed with liberal politicians, the state also has conservative strongholds that have mobilized on ballot initiatives in the past. If an initiative passes there, advocates will trumpet it as evidence that legalization has wide bipartisan appeal.

Arizona: So far, legalization has taken root in Western liberal coastal states and libertarian mountain states. Conservative voters, which outnumber liberals in Arizona, are less likely to support recreational pot. But they are moving in that direction. A new poll from progressive firms SKDKnickerbocker and Benenson Strategy Group found that 61% of Americans support legalization nationwide, including 71% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans. In 2014, Gallup found that 51% of Americans support legalization, down from 58% the year before. “The federalism argument is starting to see traction,” says the Drug Policy Alliance’s Malik Burnett.

Young Republicans are driving the charge, with 6 in 10 of them siding with those who want to make weed legit. And young voters are more likely to turn out in a presidential election year like 2016. “That only bodes positive for the initiative,” Burnett says.

Maine: In 2012, Ron Paul won the majority of Republican delegates in Maine, a state next door to the one where Mitt Romney was governor. Which is to say: the libertarian vein runs deep. Voters in two Maine cities have also proved willing to legalize marijuana in largely symbolic votes in recent years. The state’s largest city, Portland, as well as South Portland, voted to make it legal for adults to possess a small amount of marijuana (though it remains illegal under state law and local law enforcement hasn’t changed their ways). The vote in Portland happened in 2013, making it the first city on the East Coast to pass such a measure.

The smaller city of Lewiston voted against a similar measure last year. But Tvert says that the most important result of the city-level campaigns is that people in the state are thinking about legalization and at least hearing the arguments from their side. “There’s been an ongoing public dialogue,” he says. “I’ve always believed that the more people learn about marijuana and the fact that it’s not as dangerous as they’ve been led to believe, the more likely they are to support treating it that way.”

Massachusetts: Voters in Massachusetts also have marijuana fresh in their minds. In 2012, residents voted to legalize medical marijuana, after decriminalizing the drug in 2008; both measures passed with over 60% of the vote. In 2014, more than a dozen districts in the state supported non-binding ballot measures indicating support for legalizing marijuana, and the state legislature has heard testimony on a legalization bill.

As a result, activists are concentrating their efforts in the Commonwealth. Organizations are preparing to spend money and mobilize signature-gatherers once they’ve settled on the ballot wording. It won’t be a cakewalk. Some state lawmakers have expressed skepticism that the people there are prepared to legalize recreational weed while their market for medical marijuana is still getting off the ground, despite the state’s liberal bent. “I’m not sure people in the state are ready for that and I’m certainly not sure I’m ready for that,” a Democratic lawmaker told the Boston Globe.

Legalization advocates, of course, are betting that they can convince a majority of people heading to the polls that the time is right. “In any state we’re up against 80 years of marijuana prohibition and efforts to demonize marijuana,” Tvert says. “Our goal remains the same and that’s to educate voters.”

Read next: Colorado Sold Nearly 5 Million Marijuana Edibles in 2014

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TIME Transportation

Uber, Lyft Lawsuits Could Spell Trouble For the On-Demand Economy

Lyft Car
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A Lyft customer gets into a car on January 21, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

Judges allowed the lawsuits over drivers to be heard by juries

The ride-app services Uber and Lyft were dealt a setback by two separate California judges Wednesday, who ruled that juries would decide the fate of lawsuits that could have broad implications for a range of tech startups.

The lawsuits were filed by workers who allege they are misclassified as independent contractors so the businesses don’t have to reimburse the drivers’ expenses like they would for employees. The plaintiffs believe they’re owed money for outlays like gas, insurance and vehicle maintenance—costs that could be enormous if juries determine they’re owed to tens of thousands of active drivers working for Lyft and Uber in California. The companies had sought separate summary judgments dismissing the cases, but the judges in California’s North District Court denied them, saying their peers would have to determine the status of the drivers.

“This is a huge milestone and major victory for drivers in both cases,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based labor lawyer working on both cases. Her firm has brought cases on behalf of a range of low-wage workers, from Starbucks baristas to exotic dancers to house cleaners. “There’s this whole wave of companies who seem to think that they’re above the law and don’t need to comply with employment and wage laws,” she says. “They’re claiming there’s something new and different because their services are provided through technology, through a smartphone … but there’s nothing new about this.”

A spokesperson for Lyft says they are not commenting on pending litigation. Uber sent TIME a similar statement.

The legal fight is being closely watched by the many other startups who depend on the growing “1099 workforce,” people who are generally willing to trade a 9-to-5 work week and health insurance for a more flexible job. The ranks of this workforce have been growing along with the public’s appetite for the services they provide, like on-demand rides, groceries, hot meals, flowers and house cleaning. “It’s not only the consumer who says ‘I want it on demand.’ The supply is on demand,” says Ravi Dhar, a Yale management professor.

Businesses that use these on-demand workers have been able to scale fast partly because they are not on the hook for treating their personal shoppers or drivers or deliverymen like employees. Among the other startups that could be affected by the eventual rulings is Instacart, a company that organizes workers who shop for and deliver groceries to users in as little as an hour. The company is less than three years old and has been valued at $2 billion. Just as Uber has long insisted that the company is a not a transportation service, executives at Instacart say that they are not a grocery delivery company but a software platform whose app allows people to deliver groceries to other people who want them.

Liss-Riordan notes that in rejecting the companies’ requests to have the cases dismissed, the judges were also rejecting the notion that Uber and Lyft are not in the business of providing transportation. As U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in his ruling:

Lyft tepidly asserts there is no need to decide how to classify the drivers, because they don’t perform services for Lyft in the first place. Under this theory, Lyft drivers perform services only for their riders, while Lyft is an uninterested bystander of sorts, merely furnishing a platform that allows drivers and riders to connect, analogous perhaps to a company like eBay. But that is obviously wrong.

Yet that doesn’t mean the juries will have an easy decision to make. Chhabria noted in his ruling that the labor laws at issue were written in a pre-sharing economy era. “As should now be clear,” he wrote, “the jury in this case will be handed a square peg and asked to choose between two round holes. The test the California courts have developed over the 20th Century for classifying workers isn’t very helpful in addressing this 21st Century problem.”

For now, these cases apply only to drivers in California, though Liss-Riordan says she has been contacted by hundreds of drivers and intends to create a nationwide class-action suit. She expects Uber to invoke an arbitration clause that prohibits many drivers from joining a class-action suit, forcing the them to bring any claims against the company on a individual basis. Lyft has waived a similar clause. “If Uber really wants to try these cases one by one in arbitration, we’ll do that,” she says.

If the juries find that drivers for the two biggest players in the new ride-app economy are owed for gas, that could lead to other standard employee benefits. The companies could be on the hook for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. They could be forced to pay drivers overtime and make sure they’re at least making minimum wage. Uber, the larger company, would also be looking at larger payouts. While Lyft has been valued at $2.5 billion, Uber has garnered valuations of $40 billion.

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TIME

How to Draw a Portrait of Taylor Swift With No Artistic Talent

The latest offering from Osmo democratizes drawing for kids and adults

Osmo, a tech company focused on children and learning, got its name from the word awesome. And that may well be how you feel about yourself after you let their new app, Masterpiece, turn you into an artiste. Yes, the app is meant for kids, designed to turn tablet play into lessons about creativity and spatial awareness that bring the physical and digital worlds together. But this toy is also suitable for adults.

Osmo founder Pramod Sharma, who cut his teeth at Google working on projects like Google Books, describes Masterpiece as a “creativity tool.” Users can take a picture with their camera, upload one from their gallery or grab one from the Web. Then the app reduces it to basic lines and shades. The company’s very simple hardware—a stand to hold a tablet upright and a little mirror affixed over the camera—allows the app to show the drawer where their hand is on the screen as they trace the lines in real space. Like this:

Osmo’s Masterpiece app breaks down images into lines that the user can trace, watching their own hand move across the physical page on the tablet’s screen. Photo by Katy Steinmetz for TIME

You can watch the company‘s promotional video of the process here.

The result is that anyone with a pen and the ability to stay in the lines for 30 minutes can pen a decent portrait of, say, Taylor Swift. When you’re done, the app automatically saves an image of your work as well as a time-lapse video of you making it—two “artifacts,” as Sharma calls them, that complement the actual drawing you can put on the fridge. There’s the picture to show Mom and Dad and there’s the digital clip for humblebragging on Facebook.

Meanwhile, kids (or adults) have gotten to play with their tablet while also exercising their fine motor skills and concentrating on one thing for more than five minutes, versus tapping and swiping from one brightly colored time-suck to the next. As they follow the lines, they’re learning about proportions. Over time, they’re absorbing the basics of transforming a 3D image into its linear components. And there’s the feeling of achievement and empowerment that comes from making something you didn’t think you could. “It helps you build confidence,” Sharma says.

Tay Tay

But is tracing kind of cheating? Can you really take credit for creating a work of art if technology did so much of the heavy lifting? Sharma says you can for a couple reasons. One is that a big part of creating a drawing or painting is deciding what to paint or draw. The app allows users to combine images and change their proportions, so if you want to draw Beyonce’s head and mane on the body of George Washington crossing the Delaware in the famed 1851 oil painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, that’s your prerogative. And, Sharma says, just because the app is showing you all the lines to trace, that doesn’t mean you have to follow them. Perhaps Masterpiece just gives you the scaffolding for building something entirely new.

Masterpiece, the fourth app released by Osmo since late 2014, is the company’s most open-ended offering. The first three apps are more game-like. In Words, families can compete at speed spelling; an image of a bear flashes on the screen and the first person to throw their B, E, A, and R tiles into the camera’s view wins the round. Tangram emits happy chimes when users have successfully made the shapes shown on the screen with real blocks on the table in front of it. And Newton allows users to draw lines and shapes on paper that show up as elements on the screen in a game reminiscent of Touch Physics.

Those are all constrained environments with obvious goals. But the opportunities for using Masterpiece are only as limited as the user’s imagination. You could use it to hand-write fancy script onto wedding invitation envelopes. You could use it to decorate a cake. You could use it to ink elaborate henna designs on your own hands (or at least one of them, depending how ambidextrous you are). Getting used to drawing while staring at the screen instead of down at whatever you’re drawing on is disorienting at first, but the brain adjusts. Sharma likens the first go in Masterpiece to using a mouse for the first time.

The apps cost nothing. To use them you have to shell out $80 for the hardware. But what you’re really paying for is the company’s software, particularly their secret sauce—what Sharma calls “reflective AI.” That’s their ability to use the the camera to detect action and physical objects in front of it, reflecting that information to users in the desired perspective. Though you don’t see it when you’re using Masterpiece, the app can detect each line you’ve drawn and whether it matches up with the lines on screen.

Osmo started taking their first pre-orders in May 2014 and have since shipped about 100,000 units. In a little over a year, the staff has grown from two to 18. Sharma, a 34-year-old father of two young kids, is visibly excited—and seems almost a little surprised—by his company’s quick success (including TIME featuring Osmo in last year’s Best Inventions package). “Most of the tech right now is designed for adults,” he says. “And then we throw that at kids … The way to learn is to interact with things, pen and paper, Legos, all kinds of toys.” That’s where the idea for Osmo came from, he says. It’s about getting kids to use technology in a productive way that drives them back to activities that are good for their brains, like drawing or learning geometry from shapes or practicing their spelling. It also happens to be really fun.

TIME cities

San Francisco Lawmakers Take on Big Soda Again

Three lawmakers plan to introduce three pieces of legislation tackling sugary drinks

Big Soda beat San Francisco lawmakers in 2014, when the industry spent $10 million to defeat a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and narrowly succeeded. Now three lawmakers are returning fire with new measures aimed at reducing residents’ consumption of beverages that have been linked to health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

One of the proposals would make the city the first to require that advertisements for drinks like soda—on billboards, atop cabs, outside convenience stores—carry a warning label like cigarette advertising does. San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, the man behind that plan, anticipates that hundreds of locations around the city would be spreading this message:

WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.

“The big picture here is that these drinks are fueling an explosion of Type 2 diabetes and other health problems and we have a responsibility as policy-makers to act to protect public health,” Wiener says. “It’s a big problem and it’s only getting worse.” The measure would only affect new poster-like advertisements, so while the 80-foot tall sculpture of a Coke bottle at AT&T Park is safe, any new ads pitching fans on Pepsi inside the stadium would have a label to bear. The measure requires that the warnings take up at least 20% of the ad’s area for drinks that have added sweeteners and more than 25 calories per 12 oz. (Natural fruit juice, formula and milk get a pass.)

A complementary piece of legislation set to be introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen would ban advertisements for sugary drinks on publicly owned property such as transit shelters; ads for alcohol and tobacco are already non grata in those spaces. Another measure, from Supervisor Eric Mar, would ban city departments or contractors from using city funds to purchase sugary drinks. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who called sodas “the new tobacco,” issued an executive order in 2010 banishing high-calorie soft drinks from vending machines on city property. The latter measure would give that sentiment the force of law.

The language in Wiener’s proposal was borrowed from a bill in Sacramento. In February, state Sen. Bill Monning reintroduced a measure that would require similar warning labels to be plastered across the front of sugary drinks themselves or at their point of purchase. Monning introduced a similar bill last year, which passed the Senate and then failed to make it out of committee in the state Assembly. “This bill will give Californians the at-a-glance information they need to make more healthful choices every day,” he said in announcing that he’d go another round in 2015. If his measure passes, it too would be a first for the nation.

During the fight to pass the soda tax in San Francisco, proponents like Wiener argued that history has proven education simply isn’t enough on its own. As he pursues this educational reform, he won’t say whether he’s going to try for a soda tax again. But he lauds the success health advocates had across the bay in Berkeley, where voters passed the nation’s first soda tax last year, and he says there is momentum for more of the same. “There are discussions happening,” he says. “But it’s too soon to say.”

TIME Congress

Senators Introduce Historic Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana

Different strains of pot are displayed for sale at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver on Dec. 27, 2013.
Brennan Linsley—AP Different strains of pot are displayed for sale at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver on Dec. 27, 2013.

A bipartisan group of three Senators will introduce a bill that could end the federal ban on medical marijuana

A bipartisan group of three Senators will introduce a historic bill Tuesday that could end the federal ban on medical marijuana, a substance that 23 states have now legalized.

The plan sponsored by Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand would “allow patients, doctors and businesses in states that have already passed medical-marijuana laws to participate in those programs without fear of federal prosecution,” according to a statement the three Senators released Monday. The measure would also reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug instead of a Schedule I, putting it on the same legal footing as narcotics rather than substances like heroin.

Reform advocates like Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project say the legislation “has legs.” His group, as well as the Drug Policy Alliance and Americans for Safe Access, helped shape the bill. Others are more skeptical. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), has been following Congress’s movement on marijuana for the past 25 years. He says the bill may be “DOA” because some Republicans remain loath to touch such stuff.

At a press conference on Tuesday, the three Senators spoke alongside citizens with serious medical conditions who want to use medical marijuana but cannot access it or fear prosecution for violating federal law, even when they’re in a state that has legalized medical marijuana. Gillibrand dared her colleagues in the Senate to meet these people, like a young girl named Morgan who is debilitated by severe epilepsy, “and tell them they don’t deserve the medicine their doctors have prescribed.”

Even if Gillibrand’s colleagues don’t get on board, just the introduction of the bill remains significant. It’s a sign that some of the winds legalization advocates like St. Pierre have been fighting against for decades are now at their back. He calls the bill “historic,” noting that though the House has attempted marijuana reform for years, the Senate has largely been silent on the issue. Now they’re speaking out. Gillibrand insisted that making medical marijuana accessible is needed to “take care of America’s kids.”

At the conference Booker emphasized the need for veterans, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder, to be able to access the drug; prescriptions are currently not allowed at veterans’ hospitals, even in states where the substance is legalized. “These laws must change,” he said. “The government has overstepped.” The last guest he introduced was a man who grows marijuana that supplies medical marijuana dispensaries in D.C., and he spoke at length about the trials and dangers of being forced to operate entirely in cash because of federal banking restrictions.

“Marijuana prohibition is not going to end without a public conversation,” St. Pierre says. “This bill will be [introduced] and then these discussions will be happening.”

While only a slim majority of Americans favor the legalization of recreational marijuana, medical marijuana is a more decided issue. In conservative states like Kentucky, the approval ratings are still at 52%, while they climb as high as 81% in purple states like Iowa. In February, the leader of the Republican majority in West Virginia’s state senate introduced a bill to allow residents to grow and use medical marijuana if it’s recommended by a doctor. The measure was co-sponsored by the senate’s Democratic minority leader.

Paul, as St. Pierre says, is a “dyed-in-the-wool libertarian.” At the conference, he spoke the need for research to be done on the drug—something that becomes more feasible if it’s classified as a Schedule II substance—and he said that the government is “restricting people’s choices,” adding that what America needs is “more freedom for states and individuals.” His federalist tack shows how it’s possible for this to be a social issue on which Republicans can evolve and use as a carrot for younger voters. The Marijuana Policy Project’s Riffle says that ending the federal ban would get the government out of doctor-patient relationships and save taxpayer money on medical dispensary raids. “Talking about reducing the role of government interference in our personal lives and enhancing personal freedom and autonomy, reducing government spending — those are all conservative talking points,” he says.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, where it is a ritual for Republican presidential hopefuls to court the base, Republican Senator Ted Cruz endorsed a federalist approach to Colorado’s marijuana legalization, saying it was a “great embodiment” of states acting as “laboratories of democracy.”

“If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “I don’t agree with it, but that’s their rights.” Aaron Houston, a political strategist with Weedmaps who has been trying to get the Senate to take up marijuana reform for years, calls Cruz’s position “remarkable” and the bill “hugely significant.”

The Senators pushing this measure have precedents beyond state-level actions to cite. The spending bill that President Obama signed in December contained an amendment that prohibited the Department of Justice from using funds to go after state-level medical-marijuana programs. That new law gave many in the medical-marijuana world some peace of mind, as they continue to operate in a sphere where their actions are legal in their state and illegal in their country. Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, an outspoken proponent of marijuana reform, heralded it as “the first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana.”

California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. The years in the interim, Riffle says, were like a “wait-and-see phase” where the sticky discrepancy between state and federal law was largely ignored. Regardless of whether the bill goes anywhere, he believes the introduction is a signal that the wait-and-see phase is over. “This is a legitimate, mainstream topic of debate,” Riffle says. “We’re ready to see Congress actually do something about it.”

TIME LGBT

States Battle Over Bathroom Access for Transgender People

Signs for men's and women's toilets
Getty Images

Legislatures across the country are fighting over issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation

Last year, after contentious public hearings and several votes, Atherton High School in Louisville, Ky., adopted a controversial policy allowing students to use sex-segregated school facilities like bathrooms based on their gender identity. That school council meeting was the first to draw any public speakers in five years, and the fight it kicked off didn’t stop that night. Upset parents complained and tried, unsuccessfully, to repeal the measure. Now Republican state lawmakers are picking up the baton, backing a bill that would require students in Kentucky to use the facilities that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificate.

At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to make marriage equality the law of the land, so-called “bathroom bills” that target transgender people have emerged as one of the most contentious remaining battlegrounds over LGBT rights. Kentucky’s bill has passed the Republican-controlled Senate and is set to be considered by the Democrat-controlled House, though the leadership is unlikely to take it up. In Florida, a House committee passed a bill on March 4 that would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to knowingly enter a bathroom that didn’t match the sex on their driver’s license or passport. “There is a culture of fear around bathroom use,” says Teagan Widmer, a transgender woman who runs an app called Refuge Restrooms, which maps gender-neutral restrooms around the world. “It’s fear that drives the legislation.”

Proponents of the measures say they are about safety. State Rep. Frank Artiles, the sponsor of the Florida bill, has argued that the bill is necessary to prohibit voyeurism and rape. In the bill he sponsored, Kentucky State Sen. C.B. Embry wrote: “Parents have a reasonable expectation that schools will not allow minor children to be viewed in various states of undress by members of the opposite biological sex.” If Embry’s bill does manage to pass the House and become law, students would be able to sue their schools for $2,500 if they encountered a person of the opposite biological sex in the bathroom.

Opponents say these concerns unfounded and dismiss the bills as solutions in search of a problem. “It’s always a transgender person who is at far greater risk of being attacked in a bathroom,” Maryland State Sen. Richard Mandaleno told TIME in an interview for a previous story, when organizers in his state were pushing a similar bill in 2014. “There’s always this parade of outlandish consequences that are going to occur that never do.”

These bathroom bills come as advocates for LGBT rights are pushing non-discrimination bills in at least 10 states, including Florida. Many aim to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from being fired, denied housing or turned away from a business because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Florida bill, called the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, is built around the argument that policies need to be as inclusive as possible for the state to attract top workers and businesses. A coalition backed by major corporate entities, including Marriott and Walt Disney World Resort, has formed to support the measure.

Currently 18 states have laws protecting people from discrimination based on either their sexual orientation or gender identity; three more states cover just sexual orientation. Ian Palmquist, a director at the Equality Federation, a national group that helps support state-level policy change, says Pennsylvania and North Dakota may pass non-discrimination bills this session. And he points to a non-discrimination measure recently introduced in Utah as evidence of a turning tide: it’s backed by a faith coalition that includes the Mormon church, a group that was instrumental in passing California’s now-defunct ban on gay marriage in 2008.

“There have been years of work that have led up to this,” Palmquist says of the bill announced March 4. “It’s a historic step to have a relatively conservative denomination like the Mormon church taking a stand and saying LGBT people should be treated fairly and equally.” The bill includes religious exemptions that would not hold churches or other religious organizations to the same bar as private businesses or individuals when it comes to employment and housing.

Supporters are also trying to further transgender rights in other arenas. A California bill would prohibit the state from doing business with companies that deny transgender workers benefits like healthcare coverage. A Rhode Island bill would prohibit conversion therapy that seeks to change the gender identity or sexual orientation of any resident under the age of 18. A measure in Illinois would secure a deceased transgender person’s right to have a funeral that respects their preferred “appearance, chosen name, and gender pronouns.”

And advocates like Widmer are doing what they can for transgender people outside the statehouse. She recalls sex-segregated bathrooms being traumatizing places when she began her transition from appearing male to appearing female. “In a woman’s restroom I might get called a man and yelled at, but while using a men’s restroom I might get called a faggot or a tranny and then beaten up,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like a controversial issue to me, it’s pretty simple. People need to pee.”

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