Are Yelp reviewers employees? That's the question a court will have to answer as a group of irate Yelpers bring a class action lawsuit against the site alleging they were treated as unpaid workers.
The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles on Oct. 22, refers to the plaintiffs themselves as "non-wage-paid writers." It alleges that one of Internet's most popular consumer review websites has generated massive wealth off the value created by its volunteer army of reviewers.
"Yelps websites average 108 million visitors per month and users have posted over 42 million reviews to them," the plaintiffs allege in their formal complaint. "A vast majority of the ratings, reviews, and photos posted on [Yelp's] websites are created and supplied by a large and ever-growing stable of non-wage-paid writers."
The Yelpers behind the lawsuit are seeking to recover an unspecified amount of unpaid wages for themselves and other reviewers for the site. The complaint goes on to say that Yelp skirts federal employment laws by "classifying employees as 'reviewers' or 'Yelpers' or 'Elites' or 'independent contractors' or 'interns' or 'volunteers' or 'contributors' to avoid paying wages(.)" In one section, they even equate their free labor to "slavery."
Plaintiffs also allege other illegal employment practices. The lawsuit contains multiple examples of supposed wrongful terminations in the form of Yelp reviewers whose 'Elite' statuses were revoked or whose accounts were suspended. In one instance, a Yelp reviewer claims his account was cancelled after he negatively reviewed one of the site's advertisers.
With some individuals writing hundreds of reviews, there is no denying that Yelp's popularity derives from its user-generated content. But Yelp dismisses the claim that these volunteer reviewers are unpaid employees. Afterall, Facebook derives its profitability from user posted content, but does that make anyone who post a status on the social network and unpaid writer?
"This is a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit, it is unfortunate the court has to waste its time adjudicating it and we will seek to have it dismissed," a Yelp spokesman told Fast Company. "The argument that voluntarily using a free service equates to an employment relationship is completely without merit, unsupported by law and contradicted by dozens of websites like Yelp that consumers use to help one another."
This is not the first time recently that the professional status of customer reviewers has been called into question. Earlier this week, the question was raised in a different way, when NPR's Planet Money shined a spotlight on Amazon's Vine program, in which the site's top reviewers are given free merchandise in order to populate the online marketplace with more reviews. Some argued that furnishing these reviewers with gifts violates the transparent nature of a customer review system.