Ex-Uber employees are being surprised by big tax bills. They blame the ride-hailing company.

A lawyer in San Francisco said that about $200 million is at stake and that he has 60 people signed up for a class-action lawsuit.
Image: UBER CEO Dara Khosrowshahi
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi walks outside the New York Stock Exchange before ringing the opening bell as the ride-hailing company Uber makes its highly anticipated initial public offering in New York City on May 10, 2019.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By David Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO — When software engineer Peter Moody went to work in 2015 at Uber, then one of the hottest companies to work for, he took a deal common at tech startups: a lower salary but the promise of stock.

It didn't turn out quite as he expected.

Not only has Uber's stock dropped in the past year — a normal possibility, especially during a recession — but in the past few months, Moody and others who have worked at Uber said they've also been hit by huge tax bills, which in some cases may have wiped out the promised reward that led them to go to work there in the first place.

The tax bills have been a surprise that some are just finding out about ahead of Wednesday's tax filing deadline.

And Uber is to blame for the tax bills, former employees said, thanks to a little-noticed, last-minute decision the company made in May 2019, days before its stock market debut. They said Uber in effect shifted potential tax risk from the company to them and other current and former employees, from recent hires all the way up to executives.

Five former Uber employees, including Moody, said in interviews that they're angry enough that they're considering suing their former employer. Ray Gallo, a lawyer in San Francisco, said that about $200 million is at stake and that he has 60 people signed up for a class-action lawsuit he's planning to file, although the matter may end up in arbitration.

The situation raises questions about the sustainability of the Silicon Valley model of paying employees. If other startups do what Uber did by shifting tax risk, the former employees said, fewer people will risk taking jobs for which they would be paid mostly in promises of stock.

This year's tax bill means that years of work Moody put in at the San Francisco startup won't pay off as he expected. He said he had planned to put his stock compensation into his two kids' college funds.

"Walking away with no money or very, very little money after selling all of the RSUs was a very real possibility," he said, referring to restricted stock units, a form of stock compensation.

Uber spokeswoman Lois van der Laan said the company had no comment.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and alerts

Uber, an early gig-economy company that expanded aggressively, is used to fielding angry complaints from drivers, passengers, restaurants and city regulators, but complaints from former employees about compensation have been less common. Now, some said, they're furious.

"There were folks who gave up opportunities to join Uber and worked four years assuming there would be equity as part of their compensation package," said a former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from speaking publicly.

"I don't believe they expected it to play out this way, and had they known that, they might have made a different decision," he said.

At issue is the exact date Uber delivered the promised shares to its employees. Employees or early investors who hold stock in companies that are going public are typically required to wait to sell their shares until a certain amount of time has passed, a rule known as a lockup period.

Companies also decide when to grant stock to employees. The timing of when a person receives stock can have significant tax consequences.

Uber delivered shares to its employees on the day of its IPO in May 2019, meaning employees would be taxed at the price of $45 a share. But the employees were restricted from selling their shares for six months, by which point the price had fallen to around $27 a share.

Gallo, the lawyer representing the employee-shareholders, said that Uber should have delivered the shares when the lockup ended in November and that moving up the "settlement" date violated their contracts. Uber benefited by eliminating uncertainty around its compensation expenses, offloading tax risk onto employees, he said.

"The tech industry is based in part on this idea that you're going to get low wages and we're going to work you like a dog but you'll get this huge payout when the IPO happens," Gallo said. Most of the current or former Uber employees he's spoken with were shorted out of $20,000 to $50,000, he said.

He and the former Uber employees said they weren't aware of a similar situation with other tech-startup IPOs.

In the past several weeks, the subject has become the talk of former Uber employees, with many pouring out their frustrations in text messages and emails.

"Multiple people are just having conversations with their accountants and are just getting their tax bill," said one of the former employees, who said she feared reprisals if she was quoted by name. "It's like a cartoon when your eyes pop out of your head."

Legal experts said the outcome would come down to the language of the contract between Uber and its employees.

"The question will likely be whether or not Uber was grossly negligent in structuring the option plan as it did" or whether it otherwise violated federal securities law, said Donald Polden, a Santa Clara University law professor who studies employment law. He said the former employees face a difficult task.

But James Cox, a Duke University professor who specializes in securities law, said there's also a principle that parties deal fairly and in good faith. One side to a contract shouldn't "destroy the contemplated benefit of the other party," he said.