Gig Worker Status In Massachusetts: A Battle For Rights And Classification


A recent development has put the question of gig worker status back in the spotlight in Massachusetts. After a court ruling last year rejected a proposed ballot measure seeking to classify gig workers as independent contractors, the measure is now making a comeback.

Key Takeaway

A proposed ballot measure in Massachusetts seeks to define gig workers as independent contractors. This has sparked a debate between app-based gig companies advocating for flexibility and labor rights activists calling for better worker protections and benefits.

The state’s attorney general, Andrea Campbell, has given the go-ahead for supporters of the measure to begin collecting the necessary signatures for it to appear on the November 2024 ballot. The approval was granted after ensuring that the proposed questions met constitutional requirements.

In addition, Campbell has also approved a competing ballot initiative from the union SEIU Local 32BJ. This initiative aims to enable drivers to unionize and negotiate collectively for improved working conditions and compensation.

These two proposals represent the conflicting viewpoints surrounding gig worker classification. App-based gig companies supporting the ballot measure argue that keeping gig workers as independent contractors allows for flexible work schedules, which workers value. On the other hand, labor rights activists advocating for the union proposal claim that companies fail to provide necessary worker protections and benefits, such as workers’ compensation and fair wages.

A 2021 study revealed that if the previous ballot measure had passed, gig workers in Massachusetts could have earned as little as $4.82 per hour. This stark disparity emphasizes the urgent need to address the issue.

The proposal supported by Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, known as Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers 2024, shares similarities with California’s Proposition 22, which was passed in 2020. It seeks to establish a minimum earnings floor of 120% of the state’s minimum wage for app-based drivers, equivalent to $18 per hour in 2023 before tips. Additionally, drivers would receive healthcare stipends, occupational accident insurance, and paid sick time. However, concerns have been raised regarding the difficulty gig workers face in qualifying for these benefits.

An ongoing dispute pertains to how app-based companies calculate hourly rates. Currently, only the time actively spent on a gig, such as driving to pick up and drop off a passenger, is considered billable hours. Consequently, gig workers do not receive compensation for time spent waiting for a gig.

Moreover, gig work can pose safety risks, with reports of drivers being robbed, assaulted, and even killed on the job. Unfortunately, these incidents often result in minimal or no recourse or compensation from companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash.

Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, expressed satisfaction with the attorney general’s certification of the ballot proposals. They believe that the measures will grant drivers the flexibility to choose when and how long they work as independent contractors, while also providing access to new benefits and protections.

It is worth noting that a similar proposal was rejected by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2022 due to a violation of state law. One of the concerns raised by the court was the inclusion of a vaguely worded, unrelated proposal that aimed to limit companies’ liability for accidents caused by their drivers.

This renewed initiative backed by the industry may face similar challenges, but its potential success could potentially shield Uber and Lyft from an ongoing lawsuit. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office is scheduled to take the companies to trial in May over allegations of misclassifying their drivers as contractors.

The debate over gig worker status is not exclusive to Massachusetts. California’s Proposition 22 has also attracted significant attention, with a 2021 ruling deeming the measure unconstitutional. However, in March, a state appeals court upheld the validity of the proposition.

As the gig economy continues to evolve, the classification and treatment of gig workers remain pressing issues. The outcome of the ongoing debate in Massachusetts will undoubtedly have significant implications for the gig economy as a whole.

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