It seems a day doesn't go by without another legal battle for Uber, the ride-sharing service that's currently embroiled in too many fights to count. Toronto cab drivers recently announced they're suing the San Francisco-based company for $410-million in damages, while the cities of Vancouver and Calgary have shut it down altogether. That leaves many small- and medium-sized employers wondering if they should steer clear of the ruckus.
The app/taxi service launched in Toronto in 2012, and currently has a presence in 58 countries around the world. The allegations plaguing Uber mostly surround the UberX service, which allows everyday drivers to transport passengers for a discounted fare using their own cars.
Last September, Uber presented a compelling alternative to cab chits and expense cards with the launch of Uber for Business (U4B). The service claims it can save businesses up to $1,500 per travelling employee a year, particularly through the low-cost UberX fleet. It also saves time, approximately 13 minutes a month thanks to an easier expensing process.
Employees can bill rides directly to their company's business through the app. At the other end, administrators can track all trips on a centralized dashboard in real time, instantly receiving details such as the total cost, the route and the purpose of the ride. With billing and tracking all in one place, that means goodbye to crinkled receipts and onerous stages of approval.
According to Uber's senior communications associate, Susie Heath, U4B has had great interest among local businesses in Toronto. "They've seen increased productivity by freeing up their employees' time with seamless expense reporting," Ms. Heath said in an e-mail.
The company doesn't have exact numbers on how many companies have adopted U4B since it opened for business, though Ms. Heath says 30 per cent of Uber rides in Toronto start or end at an independent business.
Trends in the United States are signifying a trend toward more Uber requests for work-related rides. Certify, a cloud-based travel- and-expense-management software company, found that, for the first time, business travellers hailed more Ubers than taxis in the second quarter of 2015. According to the report, 55 per cent of ground transportation rides on the company dime were through Uber. That's up from 26 per cent in the same reporting period of 2014.
The fact that Uber is gaining ground among business travellers has much to do with convenience and cost savings. Rethink Canada is a creative agency with about 130 employees in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. They're the ones behind the viral Molson Canadian Beer Fridge campaign. It also previously worked with Uber on a creative campaign to spread awareness on drunk driving.
The company signed up for U4B in May as a solution to the time suck of expensing. "It's a huge pain to track expenses and claim expenses afterwards," says accounts director Scott Lyons, who estimates it takes him roughly 30 minutes a month to collect all his cab receipts. "It eats up a lot of our time and given we're in a service industry, that time is much better spent doing work for our clients."
Rethink is currently testing out U4B as a pilot program among its 10-person accounts team before rolling it out to the rest of the 40 employees in its Toronto office later this year. In the month of July, the team spent roughly $1,000 on UberX rides, which has saved them $700 compared to traditional taxis.
"It's always great to save money, plus it's really about the convenience," says Mr. Lyons.
Though Uber is making deep inroads in the taxi industry, the Global Business Travel Association found that one in four travel buyers say their companies don't allow their business travellers to use ride-sharing companies, partly due to the lack of understanding about where their liabilities begin and end.
There's good reason to be wary. In July, the City of Toronto cracked down on 36 UberX drivers and charged them with operating vehicles unlicensed to pick up passengers. Meanwhile, Uber consistently faces criticism for not properly screening its drivers, including checking criminal records.
It's not entirely clear what liabilities exist for small businesses. According to Daniel Chodos, a Toronto employment lawyer with Whitten & Lublin, Ontario businesses covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario (WSIB) generally cannot be sued by an employee who is injured or involved in an accident during a work-related Uber trip in the course of their employment.
"Whether employees are riding in a licensed taxi or an Uber, the employee is still travelling on behalf of the employer and any issues would be dealt with through the WSIB system if they're covered," says Mr. Chodos.
Employers without coverage from the WSIB, which provides workplace insurance and protects businesses from costly court settlements, can possibly be sued for negligence or for breaching the standard of care by requiring their employees to travel with unlicensed drivers.
Another thing businesses should consider is Ontario's Highway Traffic Act, which states no person can arrange rides in unlicensed taxis for compensation. Uber is currently facing allegations that it has violated parts of this act.
Patrizia Piccolo, a partner at employment-law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP, says it is feasible employers themselves could also be in violation.
"If an employer is an owner of an Uber business account and they're arranging for their employees to access these unlicensed vehicles, they could be going against provisions of the Highway Traffic Act," says Ms. Piccolo. Those guilty of an offence can face fines of up to $20,000.
For employers brave enough to wade through the legal issues and sign up for U4B anyway, Mr. Chodos recommends giving employees the option to travel in a licensed taxi. He also advises employees be trained on how to use the app properly and distinguish between professional and personal trips.
"Legal decisions involving new technologies tend to have a lag in terms of recognition within the legal world," says Mr. Chodos. "It can take years before a trial is heard. For now, you just have to think creatively about the possible consequences knowing ultimately anything can happen."
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