A coalition of gig economy companies is opening up a new front in the global struggle over the legality of their business model. A campaign backed by companies including Uber Technologies Inc., DoorDash Inc., Lyft Inc. and Instacart Inc. is seeking to place a measure on next year’s Massachusetts ballot defining their workers as independent contractors — not regular employees. Under the proposal, which the company-backed Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work plans to file Wednesday, ride-hail and delivery app drivers would be promised perks such as health-care stipends, but their employment status as contractors would be enshrined in state law. Drivers would be guaranteed minimum pay for their time while assigned a task but not for their waiting time in between.
The proposal is similar to California’s Proposition 22, which voters approved last November following a $200 million campaign bankrolled by gig economy companies. The Boston Globe earlier reported on the Massachusetts ballot proposal.Uber and Lyft are currently battling a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts attorney general, who contends that drivers are employees of the companies and should be entitled to full workplace rights under state law, including the minimum wage. Such a reclassification would introduce substantial new costs for gig companies and could disrupt the way they operate. At the same time, the companies face new threats from the Biden administration, which could deem their workers to be employees under federal workplace laws and prosecute them for not complying. Last month, the U.S. Senate confirmed two former union attorneys to serve as members of the National Labor Relations Board. A third, Jennifer Abruzzo, became the agency’s top prosecutor, replacing a Trump appointee who had deemed Uber drivers to be contractors excluded from employee rights. A Senate committee was slated to vote Tuesday on the nomination of David Weil, a prominent critic of gig companies, who while serving in the Obama administration said he wouldn’t hail an Uber because of the company’s refusal to recognize drivers as employees. If approved, Weil would serve as the Labor Department’s wage-and-hour enforcement chief. Companies have been trying to get state lawmakers and voters on their side. Although states can’t override federal law, local support could deter Democrats in Washington from targeting the companies. Executives from the gig companies have been meeting over the past year with union leaders and lawmakers to try to secure deals in states including New York, where a proposed compromise fizzled in June amid resistance from some labor advocates. “When you punch the clock, it’s bad,” Antonio Barros, a former teacher who now drives for Uber and Lyft, told reporters at a demonstration the coalition hosted Tuesday at the state house steps in Boston. “So I don’t want to work as an employee. I want to keep it the way it is. But I also love the benefits that they said they would provide us in the future.” Under Massachusetts law, if the proposed ballot measure passes legal review, garners sufficient signatures and isn’t overtaken by a bill in the legislature, it will be placed on next year’s November midterm election ballot. Groups including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the New England Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People preemptively formed a coalition in June to oppose any ballot measure from the companies. “We are just sick of this exploitation,” Beth Griffith, an Uber driver, said at a news briefing held by the opposition group Tuesday afternoon, “and we say no to being a permanent sub-class of workers.”