Mass. should follow California’s lead on contractors

Prop. 22 is a roadmap for Bay State to follow

WITH THE 2020 Massachusetts election behind us, state lawmakers have returned to Beacon Hill to finish one unprecedented session, while also preparing to begin the next. Health care, policing, and climate change are commanding lawmakers attention for the rest of 2020, but debates around transportation and economic development also remain to be settled, and both issues could extend well into the new legislative session following a major Election Day vote in California.

The overwhelming passage of California’s Prop 22, which exempted drivers who work for companies such as Uber and Lyft from standard employee benefits, protects the freedom of app-based delivery and rideshare workers to choose to work as independent contractors while offering them important new protections and benefits, and sets the stage for a new discussion in Massachusetts in the coming months.

TechNet supports comprehensive legislation that creates a framework for portable, flexible benefits for the independent workforce across diverse platforms, and preserves the flexibility that these independent workers need and want.

The gig economy is still new and imperfect, but it has already had a profound impact on Massachusetts. It allows for flexible, part-time earning opportunities for thousands of residents, regardless of race, background, education level, or language. It has created jobs across countless industries, not just for drivers, but for dog-walkers, musicians, painters, handymen, writers, coders, designers, artists and more. And it helps boost the finances of individuals managing children’s hectic schedules, adults caring for aging parents, students, retirees, and others who are looking to supplement their income.

Additionally, since the beginning of the pandemic, gig services like dog walking or food delivery have aided our most at-risk neighbors and helped restaurants and other small businesses stay open. They have also helped essential workers get where they need to go, while providing a vital opportunity for those who’ve lost their traditional job to still supplement their income.

These jobs have also helped boost economies and communities outside of downtown Boston by increasing mobility and equity. For example, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which oversees transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, millions of rides in 2019 began and ended in cities such as Worcester, Springfield, Brockton, Lowell, New Bedford, and Lynn, as well as Boston neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Mattapan — areas that previously had limited or no taxi service and relied on public buses with limited schedules.

On Cape Cod, app-based services are attempting to help address a nursing shortage, and in many communities on the North Shore and elsewhere, the flexibility of the gig economy helped fill employment gaps for workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This flexibility is made possible because gig workers are independent contractors, rather than employees of any of the various app-based companies – and that’s the way these workers want it. Survey after survey across the country has shown that gig workers prefer this independence by a up to a six to one margin. The flexibility to work when they want, for as long as they want, where they want, for whichever company they want (or often more than one company) is precisely what draws them to this work.

At the same time, there is broad agreement that workers in this new flexible economy need new, flexible benefits. Stronger benefits and protections for independent workers will make the gig economy better and ensure that flexible work thrives in Massachusetts – that’s where our legislative leaders come in. A law that adds flexible benefits for gig economy workers while ensuring their independence can set a new standard and better prepare us for the future.

The time is right for the Legislature to act, especially as it considers transportation and economic development issues amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, people need access to flexible work, and people need the benefits the gig economy provides. The Massachusetts unemployment rate of 9.6 percent remains among the highest in the US, and the flexible economy is providing critical income to tens of thousands of Massachusetts families across the Commonwealth.

Meet the Author

Christopher Gilrein

Executive director, Massachusetts and Northeast, TechNet
The Massachusetts Legislature long ago recognized the potential and value of the flexible economy and has always approached this issue with thoughtfulness and forward thinking. House and Senate leaders now have a chance to build on that legacy by delivering new benefits and protections for gig workers while maintaining the flexibility they overwhelmingly prefer.

Christopher Gilrein is the executive director, Massachusetts & Northeast, of TechNet, a national, bipartisan network of technology CEOs and senior executives that promotes the growth of the innovation economy. Uber and Lyft are members of TechNet.