Less than two years after a fierce election campaign in California, gig companies like Uber and Lyft are again clashing with unions, politicians and the courts over a Massachusetts ballot measure that would preserve the independent status of drivers for the companies.
The Massachusetts proposal would guarantee workers a minimum wage but limit their access to other benefits offered to regular workers, similar to the ballot measure in California. And just like in California, state judges could thwart the multi-million dollar campaign of gig companies.
A Massachusetts court has questioned whether the job proposal violates state law, and there’s a chance the November ballot could be thrown out this summer.
The conflict comes as state politicians from Massachusetts and other states are ramping up pressure on taxi companies and food delivery companies as they call for a broader reassessment of whether the gig economy is exploiting those who work in it.
On Wednesday, five US senators and three members of the House, including several from Massachusetts, sent a letters to various gig companies, they criticize for what lawmakers say is their practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors. Lawmakers are also demanding that the companies release detailed reports detailing the dangers drivers face after a report by Gig Workers Rising, an advocacy group, found that at least 50 died on the job in the past five years.
Uber and Lyft have each released reports of attacks and other serious incidents that have taken place on their platforms, but lawmakers, asking for a response by June 21, are asking for more details, as well as for companies like DoorDash to do the same. They also wrote that they wanted information on whether the gig companies reimbursed drivers who were attacked or helped their families with funeral services and other expenses.
Lawmakers said a lack of safety for drivers and their independent contractor status were linked.
“Drivers are only more at risk because they have low pay and low wages, which encourages them to work longer hours and which encourages them to accept more rides even when they feel unsafe,” said Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna Pressley. in a statement. an interview.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for DoorDash said the letters contain “misleading and inaccurate claims” and the company is committed to keeping its drivers safe. Other gig companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gig companies have spent $200 million classifying their drivers as independent contractors in California. The conflict began in 2019 when California passed a law requiring companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers as employees. The state attorney general later sued the gig companies to enforce it, and they responded by saying: threaten to leave the state†
The 2020 ballot measure, Proposition 22, passed with about 59 percent of the vote, meaning gig drivers would remain independent contractors. But last year, a California judge rejected the new law† That case is pending an appeal.
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Ms. Pressley argued that the Massachusetts ballot was a way for gig companies to save money by preventing their drivers from getting more money and benefits like health insurance. “All of this is ultimately a profit over people priority,” she said.
Proponents of the ballot measure say it would instead ensure workers receive a fair minimum wage and some benefits, while allowing drivers to choose when they work. Under the proposal, the drivers would earn at least $18 an hour while actively delivering food or carrying passengers.
It would also provide limited benefits, such as per-mile allowance for vehicle costs, accident insurance, paid sick leave and health care benefits for employees who drive a certain number of hours. Gig companies shouldn’t have to provide unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, paid time off or other health care payments.
Conor Yuunits, who leads the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work’s campaign in support of the ballot measure, said many drivers did not want to be classified as employees because that would limit their ability to set their own hours.
“It’s about their lives, about flexibility, the ability to be their own boss, to set their own schedules,” says Mr. Yuunits, senior vice president, Issues Management Group. “The fact is that drivers support this. Ultimately, we think voters will support this.”
Opponents of the voting measure note that drivers would only be compensated at that rate while completing a task and not while waiting for their next driver. Taking into account that delay time, a study has estimated drivers could earn as little as $5 to $7 an hour. (Mr. Yunits called the study “pure campaign propaganda”.)
Opponents also say drivers should already be getting benefits given to employees. In 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said, sued Uber and Lyft in an effort to force them to recognize that their drivers are employees under state law. That lawsuit is pending in court.
If the ballot measure overcomes opposition from prominent unions and politicians in Massachusetts, a staunchly pro-labor state, it could encourage gig companies to continue their state-by-state approach to codifying their rules for drivers.
“We’re gearing up for the fight,” Wes McEnany, who leads the Massachusetts Is Not for Sale campaign, told the proposal.
The debate may soon be disrupted. In May, the Massachusetts Supreme Court heard arguments from a group filing a lawsuit to stop the vote, expressing concern that the gig companies were trying to sneak a seemingly unrelated rule past voters.
Part of the proposed ballot measure says drivers are “not employees or agents” of the gig companies. Opponents of the measure say it means companies like Uber are trying to ensure they are not held liable for their drivers’ actions in accidents or crimes.
Under state law, if the court finds that part of the measure is unrelated to the rest of it — as it indicated at the May hearing — the court can discard the ballot proposal.
Voters “can have completely different views about whether a gig worker should have all of these benefits or whether they can sue the company if there is an accident or a rape,” Judge Scott Kafker, an assistant judge, said at the hearing. . “Those are very different things, aren’t they?”
A lawyer who defended the ballot measure argued that these issues were both related to an employee’s relationship with a company.
A court decision is expected in late June or early July. It’s also possible that the state legislature could pass a law similar to the ballot measure in the coming months, making a November vote redundant, though that prospect seems unlikely.
If the court allows the voting measure to be presented to the voters, the proponents may have some benefits. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart raised $17.8 million last year to support the vote, according to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which has not released totals for 2022. The bulk of that was a $13 million Lyft contribution in December, which appears to be greatest political contribution in Massachusetts history†
Massachusetts Is Not for Sale raised less than $1 million last year. The group said it learned from the fight in California that voters could be confused by the details of a complicated ballot measure on independent contractors, so a key focus of the campaign will be major tech companies trying to rewrite state laws.
“California had to go first and got caught a little flat footed,” said Mr. McEnany. “I think in hindsight, if we look at California and see it coming, we could have built a coalition much earlier.”
Gig companies say they have drivers on their side too. The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work cites a survey of approximately 400 Massachusetts drivers this year, paid for by the gig companies, in which 81 percent supported the vote.
Drivers surveyed were told that a yes vote would classify drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, bringing new benefits, and a no vote would maintain the status quo.
Opponents say drivers are being misled and they can maintain flexible schedules as well as receive higher wages and benefits if they were classified as employees.
“This half measure is not enough,” said Massachusetts Democrat Senator Edward J. Markey, who signed the letters to gig companies about worker safety. “The answer is to classify these workers as workers and pay them a living wage and give them real benefits.”