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 ride-share 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.
Reading I-90 Allston tea leaves: The MassDOT board moved forward with a nearly $86 million plan to shore up the crumbling elevated section of the Mass Turnpike between BU and the Charles River before tearing it down and replacing it with a ground-level highway.
– Not everyone is on board with that decision, in part because of uncertainty about what it means. Is it safety first, as the state highway administrator contends? Or is it the Healey administration’s way of kicking the can down the road?
– Harvard and the business group A Better City have stepped forward with different approaches that reportedly end up pretty much in the same place. Their approaches would build the groundlevel Mass Turnpike in stages and, as each stage is completed, tear down the elevated highway. These approaches would cost more but squander less money shoring up and then tearing down the elevated highway. The state highway administration says the approaches have merit.
– Money, of course, is key in the discussion. State transportation officials say they don’t have the estimated $2 billion in funding to replace and straighten the Turnpike as it goes through Allston to make way for a new Harvard neighborhood (and a new T station) in the area. Read more.
Laying down the law: Attorney General Andrea Campbell warns municipalities that compliance with the MBTA zoning law is not optional. Read more.
Bye bye COVID emergency: Gov. Maura Healey is lifting the modified public health emergency for COVID-19 and walking back the vaccine mandate for state employees. Read more.
Digital disconnect: Dan Noyes, the CEO of Tech Goes Home, says digital access remains a serious problem in Massachusetts, with more than 1 million residents lacking a fixed broadband internet connection. Read more.
Alarm bells: Wendy Morrill, president of South Coast Neighbors United, says a troubling environmental trend seen in other parts of the state is emerging in New Bedford. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
The cost of implementing the new law offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants could be as high as $28 million. (State House News Service)
In the wake of a Supreme Judicial Court decision declaring unconstitutional one town’s civility rules for government meetings, the ACLU of Massachusetts puts out 10 tips for preventing unruly members of the public from getting out of hand. (Media Nation)
The Washington Post chronicles the 72-hour flurry of events that began last Friday as US officials scrambled to avert a broader banking and financial crisis.
The three Massachusetts casinos reported taking in $25.7 million in in-person sports bets during February. That tally does not include mobile sports betting, which just started and is expected to be much, much bigger. (Eagle-Tribune)
The Worcester City Council will consider upping affordable housing requirements for New England’s second largest city, reflecting feedback about an urgent need for more accessible housing in the increasingly cost-burdened municipality. (Worcester Telegram)
Worcester public schools officials are asking several state offices to investigate the financial relationship between Old Sturbridge Village and a new Worcester-based charter school approved last month by the state board of education. (Boston Globe)
Gov. Maura Healey is now the one on the spot over the disastrous state of the MBTA, but is she feeling the heat? (Boston Globe)
An Easthampton woman is being held without bail after being charged with the stabbing murder of a man she was living with. It’s the first homicide in Easthampton since 2012. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood is placed on paid administrative leave while a noncriminal issue involving him is investigated. (Berkshire Eagle)