MASSACHUSETTS AND CALIFORNIA for now are on very different tracks when it comes to classifying gig workers as independent contractors or employees. Whether the question is tangled in west coast courts or marching up Beacon Hill, it’s not going away in either state any time soon.
For a time, it looked like Massachusetts and California were on the same path. Both have a specific test in state law to determine whether someone is an independent contractor and therefore exempted from an array of benefits and protections. Lawsuits in each state, arguing that treating rideshare and app-based delivery workers as independent contractors violated the law, prompted record-setting ballot campaigns to settle the question.
In 2020, voters in California approved a ballot question backed by Uber, Lyft, and other platforms that would allow the companies to classify their gig workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
Massachusetts seemed poised to follow California’s lead in 2022, when a similar coalition gathered signatures for a similar ballot question. Rideshare companies, gesturing at California’s referendum, said the Massachusetts question’s passage would mean voters and drivers overwhelmingly wanted to retain flexibility through independent work, but labor unions argued it was an attempt to circumvent employment protections by throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into a misleading campaign.
Then the courts got involved. In California, the ballot question law was initially blocked by a state judge, but now the measure, at least in part, is moving forward in the wake of an appeals court ruling on Monday.
In Massachusetts, opponents got the jump on the ballot measure before it even got to voters. The state’s highest court last June threw it out. The question was too broad and disparate, the court concluded, not only setting out certain benefits for rideshare workers in exchange for independent contractor status, but also including language related to accident liability and contract formation.
The app-supported coalition isn’t necessarily going to take another run at the ballot in the Bay State. The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, a group funded by Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Doordash, and Postmates, which supports an independent contractor classification for ride-share drivers, celebrated the California ruling but indicated their focus is on Beacon Hill.
“Monday’s ruling is a historic win for app-based workers,” said spokesman Conor Yunits. While pointing to polling commissioned by the apps that found 83 percent of surveyed Massachusetts rideshare drivers would likely vote to be classified as independent contractors, “drivers should not have to wait any longer to secure what they want and deserve,” he said. “We look forward to a robust conversation with all parties that leads to a strong legislative compromise in the coming months.”
The Legislature’s financial services and labor committees are juggling several bills on the question. One set, called the “Rideshare Drivers Justice” bill, would grant drivers access to collective bargaining rights, discrimination protection, unemployment insurance, paid sick time, and a guaranteed minimum wage. Though it would help set a path to unionization, it does not wade into the classification question. It is backed by the International Association of Machinists and 32BJ SEIU unions.
The ”EPA (Establishing Protections and Accountability) Act,” by contrast, tackles classification and is supported by the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers. It aims to enforce state labor law, arguing that ride-share workers “are already entitled to the same presumptions of employment” and should be considered employees rather than independent contractors.
Neither of those bills is backed by the rideshare industry. Instead, the industry supports one piece of legislation that closely mirrors the tossed ballot measure and another that seeks to create “portable benefit accounts” that drivers could use.
The unionization and classification bills could have a powerful ally in the governor’s office. While attorney general, Gov. Maura Healey sued Uber and Lyft in July 2020, arguing that the companies improperly classify rideshare workers as independent contractors rather than employees under state law.
That case is now in her successor’s hands. Attorney General Andrea Campbell said during the campaign that she planned to continue the lawsuit, and a busy spring awaits.
Uber and Lyft are ordered to produce documents by the end of March and all depositions should be completed by mid-June, according to the court docket. A status conference, where opposing parties meet to discuss the case, is scheduled for May 17.