The next battleground for gig labor laws: Massachusetts

Less than two years after a fierce election battle in California, gig companies like Uber and Lyft are once again clashing with labor groups, politicians and the courts over a Massachusetts election measure that would preserve the independent status of drivers for companies.

The Massachusetts proposal would guarantee workers a minimum wage but limit their access to other benefits available to regular employees, similar to the California ballot measure. And like in California, state judges could thwart the concert companies’ multimillion-dollar campaign.

A Massachusetts court debated whether the gig proposal violated state law, and there’s a chance the November ballot measure will be thrown out this summer.

The dispute comes as state politicians in Massachusetts and other states are increasing pressure on transportation and food delivery companies while calling for a broader reassessment of whether the gig economy exploits those who work there.

On Wednesday, five U.S. senators and three House members, including several from Massachusetts, sent letters to various gig companies criticizing them for what lawmakers say is their practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors. Lawmakers are also demanding companies publish detailed reports outlining the dangers drivers face after a report by Gig Workers Rising, an advocacy group, found that at least 50 people were killed on the job in the last few weeks. last five years.

Uber and Lyft have each released reports on assaults and other serious incidents on their platforms, but lawmakers, who are calling for a response by June 21, are asking for more details, along with companies like DoorDash to do the same. . . They also wrote that they wanted to know if the gig companies were compensating drivers who were attacked or helping their families with funeral services and other costs.

Lawmakers said a lack of safety for drivers and their status as independent contractors were linked.

“Drivers are only at greater risk because they have low wages, low wages, which push them to work longer hours and push them to accept more trips, even when they don’t feel unsafe,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in an interview.

In a statement, a DoorDash spokeswoman said the letters contained “misleading and inaccurate claims” and that the company was committed to keeping its drivers safe. Other gig companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Gig companies have spent $200 million to have their drivers classified as independent contractors in California. The dispute began in 2019 when California passed a law requiring companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers as employees. The state attorney general then sued the gig companies to enforce it, and they responded by threatening to leave the state.

The 2020 ballot measure, Proposition 22, passed with about 59% of the vote, meaning gig drivers would remain independent contractors. But last year, a California judge rejected the new law. This case is pending appeal.

Ms Pressley argued the Massachusetts ballot measure was a way for gig companies to save money by avoiding giving their drivers more money and benefits like health coverage. “It’s all ultimately about prioritizing profit over people,” she said.

Proponents of the ballot measure say it would instead ensure workers receive a fair minimum wage and some benefits while maintaining drivers’ ability to choose when they work. According to the proposal, drivers would earn at least $18 an hour while actively delivering food or transporting passengers.

It would also give limited benefits, such as a per-kilometre charge for vehicle costs, accident insurance, paid sick leave and health care benefits for workers who have spent a certain number of hours driving. Gig businesses wouldn’t have to provide unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, vacation pay, or any other health care payments.

Conor Yunits, who leads the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, the campaign for the election measure, said many drivers did not want to be classified as employees because it would limit their ability to set their own hours.

“It’s about their life, having flexibility, the ability to be their own bosses, to set their own schedules,” said Mr. Yunits, senior vice president at Issues Management Group. “The thing is, drivers support that. Ultimately, we think voters will support this.

Opponents of the ballot measure note that drivers would only be paid that rate by completing a task and not waiting for their next rider. Taking this lag into account, one study estimated that drivers could only earn $5-7 per hour. (Mr. Yunits called the study “pure campaign propaganda.”)

Opponents also say drivers should already be getting employee benefits. In 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sued Uber and Lyft in an effort to force them to recognize that their drivers are employees under state law. This lawsuit is pending in court.

If the ballot measure overcomes opposition from prominent unions and politicians in Massachusetts, a staunchly pro-worker state, it could embolden gig companies to continue their state-by-state approach to codifying their rules for drivers.

“We’re preparing for the fight,” said Wes McEnany, who leads Massachusetts Is Not For Sale, a campaign opposing the proposal.

The debate may soon be moot. In May, the Massachusetts Supreme Court heard arguments from a group calling for the ballot measure to be stopped and expressed concern that the gig companies were trying to push through a seemingly unrelated rule. the electors.

A section of the proposed ballot measure says the drivers are “not an employee or agent” of the gig companies. Opponents of the measure say it means companies like Uber are trying to ensure they cannot be held responsible for the actions of their drivers in accidents or crimes.

Under state law, if the court finds that a section of the measure is unrelated to the rest of it — as it indicated during the May hearing — it can dismiss the voting proposal.

Voters “may have totally different opinions on whether a construction worker should have all these benefits or whether they can sue the company in the event of an accident or rape,” Judge Scott Kafker said. , associate judge, during the hearing. “These are very different issues, aren’t they?”

A lawyer defending the ballot measure argued that these issues both concern a worker’s relationship with a company and are related.

A court decision is expected in late June or early July. It’s also possible that the state legislature will pass legislation similar to the ballot measure in the coming months, making a November vote unnecessary, though that prospect seems unlikely.

If the court allows the ballot measure to come before voters, supporters could have some advantages. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart raised $17.8 million to support the ballot measure last year, according to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which did not release 2022 totals. Most of that was a $13 million contribution from Lyft in December, which appears to be the largest political contribution in Massachusetts history.

Massachusetts Is Not For Sale raised less than $1 million last year. The group said it learned from the struggle in California that voters may be confused by the details of a convoluted ballot measure on independent contractors, so a big campaign focus will be to make the case that big business technologies are trying to rewrite state laws.

“California had to go first and got caught a little off guard,” McEnany said. “I think we have hindsight, looking at California and seeing it coming, we were able to build a coalition much earlier.”

Gig companies say they also have drivers on their side. The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work cites a survey of about 400 Massachusetts drivers this year, paid for by gig companies, in which 81% supported the ballot measure.

Drivers interviewed were told that a yes vote would classify drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees, and provide new benefits, and a no vote would maintain the status quo.

Opponents say the drivers are being misled and could both maintain flexible hours and receive higher wages and benefits if they were classified as employees.

“This half measure is not enough,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, who signed the letters to gig companies about worker safety. “The answer is to classify these workers as employees and pay them a living wage and give them real benefits.”

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