Jun 15, 2022 - News

Mass. high court kills ballot question on gig worker classification

A white sticker that says Uber in black appears on the back windshield of a white car at an airport.
Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The state's high court killed an Uber- and Lyft-backed ballot initiative Tuesday that aimed to classify drivers for app-based services as contractors.

  • Now the drivers' fate in Massachusetts will likely be left up to a lawsuit filed by the attorney general against Uber and Lyft.

Why it matters: Massachusetts is one of several states grappling with how to classify gig workers for app-based companies, which have changed how people order food, groceries and driving services.

  • Workers classified as employees are entitled to certain benefits under the law, including health insurance and sick days, whereas independent contractors are not.
  • One analysis out of UC Berkeley estimated that a driver working 15 hours a week for companies like Uber and Lyft could legally earn $4.82 an hour — slightly above one-third of the state's minimum wage — after factoring in unpaid idle time, unreimbursed mileage and other costs. Proponents of the ballot question called the analysis "ludicrous."

Driving the news: The Supreme Judicial Court struck down the November ballot question, which aimed to codify the drivers' current status as contractors, due to how part of it was worded.

  • The decision states that the wording covers two policy decisions that are too distinct to be considered "related or mutually dependent subjects," as the state constitution requires, and one of the questions was considered too confusing for voters.

What's next: A lawsuit which Attorney General Maura Healey filed in Suffolk Superior Court in 2020 aims to classify rideshare drivers as employees.

  • The suit accuses Uber and Lyft of violating the state's wage and labor laws.
  • Judge Kenneth W. Salinger denied Uber and Lyft's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, supporters of the failed ballot measure are calling on legislators to pass a similarly worded bill.

  • "We hope the legislature will stand with the 80% of drivers who want flexibility and to remain independent contractors while having access to new benefits," said Conor Yunits, spokesperson for the ballot committee Flexibility & Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, in a statement to Axios.

The other side: "We commend the court for getting it right on this issue, and we will remain vigilant and united against any further attempts by Big Tech to water down worker and consumer protections in Massachusetts or beyond," Wes McEnany, director of the opposing campaign Massachusetts Is Not For Sale, said in a statement on the group's website.

State of play: Members of the financial services committee have until June 30 to decide the bill's fate.

  • Rep. Carlos Gonzalez (D-Springfield) filed the bill last year with Rep. Mark Cusak (D-Braintree), and said he hopes to get both sides to agree to an updated draft of his proposal.
  • Gonzalez declined to share the draft with Axios, but said the language he sent to stakeholders allows for collective bargaining and a minimum wage of $18 an hour.
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