Yesterday, the California Labor Commission decided that Uber's drivers were employees, not independent contractors. Articles all over the web, including this one from Business Insider, claimed that this could "dramatically change Uber's business model". For example, if drivers are contractors, Uber doesn't have to withhold income taxes or pay for drivers' expenses. So this ruling seems like it could be a big deal, right?
Some of the differences between a contractor and an employee are superficial, and while they may affect administrative practices, they may only have a trivial effect on Uber's bottom line. Why? Because compensation for a job is multi-faceted, and making compensation more generous in one way will enable a company to make it less generous in another way. Going back to the examples above, making Uber withhold income taxes should have little to no effect on its expenses because independent contractors have to pay income taxes as well. Similarly, drivers will demand more compensation for a job where they have to pay for their own car maintenance and insurance than for one where those expenses are paid for them. So the parts of the ruling that simply shift costs from drivers to Uber shouldn't make a big difference.
Now some of the differences between employees and contractors are more meaningful. For example, it's much easier to fire a contractor than an employee, and, according to Business Insider, employees may be entitled to an hourly wage, whereas independent contractors are not. In this case, the shift is not just in who pays for things, but in how variable employees' earnings versus Uber's revenue is. If Uber pays drivers a regular hourly wage and takes in any revenue the drivers bring in, then Uber is taking on more risk than the employee. Employees might prefer that system because it lowers their earnings variability and even be willing to work for a lower wage on average. In this case, Uber's revenue can actually increase (and, at the same time, become more variable). However, this loss of flexibility might actually harm Uber if it generates higher swings in its revenue than it can weather.