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Battle Over Gig Work in Massachusetts Ramps Up With PR Duel

June 23, 2021, 7:42 PM

Massachusetts is emerging as the next front in the battle over the gig economy’s workforce model, as Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. push for measures that would cement the status quo while pro-worker groups mobilize in response.

Dozens of civil rights groups and labor unions have formed the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights to oppose efforts to pass a new law—through either legislation or a voter initiative—that would exempt ride-hailing app drivers from any state effort to require gig workers to be considered employees.

Uber, facing litigation brought by the Massachusetts attorney general, has said it will use its California playbook in other areas as a blueprint to preserve its business model, and allow drivers to remain independent contractors who are not entitled to benefits such as minimum wage and overtime.

In California, Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and other gig companies led a $225 million campaign to pass the Proposition 22 ballot initiative, which carved out ride-hailing app drivers from a state law that made it harder for companies to classify their workers as independent contractors.

The civil rights and labor coalition, in announcing its formation Tuesday, released polling that showed support for employee-rights in Massachusetts and that voters opposed any potential ballot initiative that would exclude ride-hailing app drivers from such protections.

“Uber, Lyft and other Big Tech companies exploit drivers and lie to us,” said Beth Griffith, an Uber driver and chair of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild. “We earn less, have fewer benefits, and fewer protections than any other workers. Now these billion-dollar companies want to pass a law that strips away our rights for good. Drivers are going to fight back.”

A separate group, known as the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work and backed by gig companies, has already launched a public relations offensive. It previously released its own polling that showed workers support a Proposition 22-like ballot initiative.

Massachusetts, like California, has a so-called ABC test that makes it hard for gig companies to defend their business models. The test requires an employer to prove three factors before it can classify a worker as a contractor: (A) the worker has freedom from control over how to perform the service; (B) the service is outside the business’ normal variety or workplace; and (C) the worker is engaged in an independently established role.

VIDEO: App-based companies and state governments are at odds over how to properly classify gig economy workers.

The Healey Suit

The Coalition for Independent Work also supports a bill proposed in the state legislature that would essentially carve out ride-hailing and delivery drivers but give them benefits that independent contractors otherwise wouldn’t receive. California’s Proposition 22, for example, gave workers a minimum wage floor, a health-care stipend, and some mileage reimbursement if they work a certain amount of hours.

“App-based drivers in Massachusetts have made it abundantly clear that they want to maintain the flexibility they value as independent contractors while gaining access to new benefits and protections,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the Coalition for Independent Work.

The pressure on the so-called worker classification question that is roiling the gig economy increased in the state after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey last year sued Uber and Lyft for alleged worker misclassification under state and federal wage-and-hour laws. Lawsuits that come from the government can avoid the arbitration process, which the companies have used to keep such disputes from being heard in open court.

In California, a similar attorney general-filed lawsuit led to a San Francisco court order for Uber and Lyft to change their business models, but voters approved the Proposition 22 initiative before the order moved forward.

Lyft referred comments on the Massachusetts workers’ coalition to the group that supports independent work. Uber didn’t respond to a request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Erin Mulvaney in Washington at emulvaney@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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