Where does battle over app drivers go now?
With ballot question yanked, focus shifts to Legislature, courts
FORGET NOVEMBER 2022. It will likely be a long time before Uber and Lyft drivers get certainty about their employment status in Massachusetts.
Today, drivers are considered independent contractors, but Attorney General Maura Healey has sued, arguing that, under state law, they should be classified as employees. After the Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday tossed out a ballot question that would have confirmed ride-hailing drivers’ status as independent contractors while granting them additional benefits, the debate turns to two other forums: the Legislature and the courts.
In a statement Tuesday, the pro-ballot question coalition Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers said it is seeking legislative action. “We hope the Legislature will stand with the 80 percent of drivers who want flexibility and to remain independent contractors while having access to new benefits,” the coalition said.
The Legislature’s Financial Services Committee has given itself a June 30 deadline to act on a bill that would establish portable benefits accounts for app-based drivers. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Mark Cusack of Braintree and Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield, would let drivers retain their status as independent contractors, but set up portable benefits accounts. Rather than guaranteeing particular benefits like minimum pay and sick leave, as the ballot question would have done, accounts would be funded by the companies based on a percentage of drivers’ earnings. Drivers could withdraw money to pay for family and medical leave, health insurance premiums, or retirement savings.
Sen. Paul Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat who co-chairs the Financial Services Committee with Rep. James Murphy, a Weymouth Democrat, said he believes the SJC made the right decision. “This decision is very instructive as the Legislature considers legislation, now and in the future, relating to app-based network companies, drivers, and riders,” Feeney said. “We have a clearly defined worker classification law in Massachusetts that ensures that working people have fundamental rights and protections, and it should be enforced vigorously in all cases, and across all sectors.”
Murphy said the committee continues to work on the issue. “It is clear that app-based drivers must be afforded adequate benefits and protections, which is not currently the case,” Murphy said. “I believe in the legislative process and engaging all parties to find possible solutions which serve the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth.”
If lawmakers don’t act, the issue could be decided by the courts.
In July 2020, Healey sued Uber and Lyft in Suffolk Superior Court. She argued that the companies are misclassifying drivers, who should be considered employees, eligible for benefits like overtime, paid sick leave, and worker’s compensation.
Discovery is ongoing in that case.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a candidate for attorney general who represents workers in employment cases and worked with ballot question opponents, said the Massachusetts lawsuit is unusual because most cases against gig economy companies are filed by individual drivers, and the courts send them to arbitration, avoiding a judicial ruling that could have widespread impact. California and Massachusetts, the states with the most expansive worker classification laws, are two states where the attorney general took the initiative and filed suit.In California, the attorney general secured a court order classifying drivers as employees, but voters then passed a ballot question classifying them as independent contractors. A judge then overturned the ballot question as unconstitutional, and an appeal is pending.
Come January, Healey will no longer be attorney general, since she is running for governor. All three Democrats running for attorney general, Liss-Riordan, Andrea Campbell, and Quentin Palfrey, said they would continue to pursue the lawsuit against Uber and Lyft. Republican Jay McMahon did not respond to a request for comment.