The next battleground for gig worker labor laws: Massachusetts

Less than two years after a fierce electoral battle in California, concert companies like Uber and Lyft are again clashing with union groups, politicians and the courts over an electoral measure in Massachusetts that would preserve independent driver status for companies.

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

A Massachusetts court has questioned whether the gig-work proposal violates state law and there is a possibility that the November vote measure could be overturned this summer.

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

On Wednesday, five US senators and three House members, including many from Massachusetts, sent letters to various concert companies, criticizing them for what lawmakers say is their practice of misclassifying employees as independent contractors. Lawmakers are also demanding that companies release detailed reports describing the dangers facing drivers after a report by Gig Workers Rising, a advocacy group, found that at least 50 were killed on the job in the past five years.

Over Other lyft each has published reports of assaults and other serious incidents on their platforms, but lawmakers, demanding a response by June 21, are asking for more details, as are companies like DoorDash to do the same. They also wrote that they wanted information that concert companies compensated drivers who were attacked or helped their families with funeral services and other costs.

Lawmakers said the lack of safety for drivers and their independent contractor status were related.

“Drivers are at greater risk just because they have low pay, low wages, which pushes them to work longer and pushes them to take more rides, even when they feel insecure,” said Democrat representative Ayanna Pressley. Massachusetts, in interview.

In a statement, a DoorDash spokesperson said the letters contained “misleading and inaccurate claims” and the company pledged to protect its drivers. Other concert companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Gig companies spent $ 200 million fighting for their drivers to be classified 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 subsequently sued the concert companies to enforce it and they responded threatening to leave the state.

The 2020 vote 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. That case is pending appeal.

Ms. Pressley said the Massachusetts vote measure was a way for concert companies to save money by not giving their drivers more money and benefits like health coverage. “All of this is ultimately a priority of profit over people,” she said.

Proponents of the voting measure say it would guarantee workers a fair minimum wage and some benefits, while maintaining drivers’ ability to choose when to work. Under the proposal, drivers would earn at least $ 18 per hour actively delivering food or ferrying passengers.

It would also give limited benefits, such as a per-mile rate for vehicle costs, accident insurance, paid sick time, and health care subsidies for workers who have spent a certain number of hours driving. Gig companies should not provide unemployment insurance, workers’ allowance, paid leave or any other health benefits.

Conor Yunits, who is leading the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work campaign to support the voting measure, said many drivers don’t want to be classified as employees because that would limit their ability to set their own schedules.

“It’s about their lives, the flexibility, the ability to be their own bosses, to set their own schedules,” said Yunits, senior vice president of Issues Management Group. “The fact is that the drivers support it. Ultimately, we believe the voters will support this. “

Opponents of the vote 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, one study estimated drivers could only earn $ 5 to $ 7 per hour. (Mr. Yunits called the studio “pure campaign propaganda.”)

Opponents also argue that drivers should already be receiving employee benefits. In 2020, Maura Healey, Attorney General of Massachusetts, South Uber and Lyft in an attempt to force them to recognize that their drivers are employees under state law. That case is pending in court.

If the vote measure overcomes opposition from prominent unions and politicians in Massachusetts, a staunchly pro-labor state, it could encourage concert companies to continue their state-by-state approach to coding rules for drivers.

“We are preparing for the fight,” said Wes McEnany, who leads the Massachusetts not for sale, campaign that opposes the proposal.

The debate could soon become moot. In May, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments from a group that sued to stop the voting measure and expressed concern that concert companies were trying to steal a seemingly unrelated rule from voters.

One section of the proposed voting measure states that the drivers “are not an employee or agent” of the concert companies. Opponents of the measure say this means that companies like Uber are trying to make sure they cannot be held accountable 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, as it indicated during the May hearing, it can reject the proposed vote.

Voters “may have completely different views on whether a gig worker should have all these advantages over whether they can sue the company in the event of an accident or rape,” Judge Scott Kafker, a associate judge. “These are very different issues, aren’t they?”

A defense attorney for the ballot order argued that these issues concerned both a worker’s relationship with a company they were related to.

The court’s decision is expected in late June or early July. It is also possible that the state legislature could pass a law similar to the vote measure in the coming months, making a vote in November unnecessary, even if that prospect seems unlikely.

If the court allows the voting order to be put to the voters, the proponents may have some advantages. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart raised $ 17.8 million to support the vote measure last year, according to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which hasn’t released the totals for 2022. Most of these was a Lyft contribution of $ 13 million in December, which appears to be the the largest single political contribution in the history of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts not for sale last year raised less than $ 1 million. The group said it learned from the fight in California that voters may be confused by the minutiae of a complicated electoral measure on independent contractors, so a big campaign goal will be to argue that big tech companies are trying to rewrite state laws.

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

Concert companies claim they have drivers on their side as well. The Massachusetts Coalition for Self-Employment cites a survey of approximately 400 Massachusetts drivers this year, paid for by concert companies, in which 81 percent supported the vote measure.

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

Opponents say the drivers have been misled and that they could both maintain flexible hours and receive higher pay and benefits if they were classified as employees.

“This half-measure is not enough,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who signed the letters to concert companies on 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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