Drivers suing Uber Technologies Inc. for better pay and benefits are proposing to pursue their group lawsuit in phases focused first on whether they qualify as employees.

If they win that round, then the two sides can fight over how much money the drivers are owed. That’s one option offered by lawyers for the drivers likely to be debated at a hearing Thursday before a San Francisco federal judge.

At stake in the case is Uber’s “drive whenever you have time” motto, a flexible arrangement that is also an underpinning of the broader sharing economy. Companies that rely on workers classified as independent contractors typically avoid the costs of traditional employment. Making them employees would entitle them to unemployment and workers’ compensation as well as the right to unionize.

The drivers’ attorneys urged the judge presiding over the dispute to consider dividing the drivers into smaller groups or trying the case in phases if he’s not comfortable letting it go forward as one big class action.

In a phased trial, a jury would first consider the legal question of whether Uber must abandon its treatment of 160,000 California drivers as independent contractors.

If the drivers win that battle, how much they may be owed in reimbursement for mileage and tips and other damages would be calculated later.

Uber has argued that its drivers prize their independence, and that they use the company’s app that pairs them with customers so differently that they can’t possibly be grouped together in one lawsuit. The company argued in a court filing that breaking the case into separate liability and damages phases isn’t allowed under class-action rules.

The case is O’Connor v. Uber Technologies Inc., 13- cv-03826, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).