Rideshare ballot showdown poses ‘unusual’ question

MASSACHUSETTS HAS A LONG history of putting complicated policy questions that lawmakers have been unable to resolve to a direct vote in statewide elections. This fall looks like it will be no exception, as the marquee ballot question that voters may face involves how state employment law should treat drivers for “gig” economy platforms like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash. 

As a new analysis from the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University makes clear, there’s nothing simple about the question that seems destined to appear on the November ballot unless a legislative resolution of the issue is reached in the coming weeks. 

The ballot question is being pushed by the big rideshare companies, who want to codify the status of drivers as independent contractors, not employees. The confusion starts with what the Tufts analysis calls the “unusual” fact that the question lacks a standard “keep the status quo” option for voters, as seen with most ballot questions. 

While a “yes” vote being pushed by the big driving platform companies would set up a new structure that treats drivers as contractors, while providing a limited suite of benefits, a “no” vote doesn’t lock in their status as standard employees. Instead, it would merely allow an ongoing lawsuit to play out, in which Attorney General Maura Healey is suing Uber and Lyft, arguing their drivers must be treated as employees under current state law. 

The analysis says about two-thirds of rideshare drivers work for the app services as a “side job” while working another job or enrolled as a student. But the figure is deceiving when it comes to who is carrying the load when it comes to rideshare calls. According to the Tufts report, one recent national survey found that just 10 percent of rideshare drivers handle 57 percent of the work in the sector, meaning a large share of rides are handled by drivers for whom the app platforms represent their main job. 

The analysis says rideshare drivers occupy a hard-to-define gray area somewhere between truly independent contractors and full-fledged employees. They are free to work as many or as few hours as they want, and can even turn down individual jobs while driving. They also are free to work for firms that are in direct competition with each other, something many of them do. At the same time, unlike true independent contractors, they cannot develop a client base of their own, independent of the app service. And they have no freedom to negotiate prices for their services, a hallmark of compensation in the world of independent contractors.  

“The result has been a kind of third-way limbo, where gig drivers get the flexibility to set their own schedules but miss out on both the entrepreneurial potential of real independent contractors and the robust protections afforded to employees,” says the analysis.

The report doesn’t land firmly on the hotly debated issue of what rideshare drivers earn, pointing to studies showing drivers still earning more than $20 per hour after accounting for expenses, while saying other studies have suggested some drivers in Massachusetts net less than $5 per hour. The report says tips can boost earnings, and it allows that some drivers may underreport their earnings. 

The ballot question, which is being backed by Uber and Lyft, which are expected to spend heavily on the campaign, would provide some benefits to rideshare drivers while cementing their status as independent contractors. Those benefits include a guaranteed minimum wage of $18 per hour. As the CSPA report points out, that certainly differs from the current pay structure, which has no guaranteed minimum, but it only applies when they’re actually driving a customer, not in between jobs, and it doesn’t account for things like employer-paid payroll taxes that they’ll be responsible for. 

Drivers would earn sick time, and get 26 cents reimbursement per mile driven – though this is less than half the IRS approved rate of 58.5 cents per mile, and, like the minimum wage rate, only applies for miles driven with customers aboard. Drivers would get partial stipends to help buy health insurance, but only if they average 15 hours or more work per week for a particular company. That threshold, the report says, could prove tricky for drivers, many of whom split their work week among many gig companies. A driver could, the report points out, average 14 hours a week for Uber, 14 hours for Lyft, and 12 for DoorDash. He or she would not be eligible for any help buying health coverage, despite working 40 hours a week for driving platforms. 

The analysis says passage of the measure could lead some traditional employers to add gig drivers to their business model. Meanwhile, it characterizes a “no” vote as essentially a “bet on the attorney general’s lawsuit.” A victory by the AG, says the report, would boost the compensation package of drivers, while increasing costs to consumers and leading to some contraction of the sector. 

Whatever the outcome, the analysis says, determining the status of rideshare drivers won’t settle questions about how to treat those who work in the broader gig economy. “So what’s needed is a model of rules and protections built with the gig economy in mind. And that’s not really what’s on the ballot,” it says. 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Healey unveils climate plan: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey rolls out a plan to address climate change that calls for a cabinet czar to coordinate the state’s efforts and sets aggressive timetables for eliminating the use of fossil fuels in powering the grid and public transit across the state.

– The timetables, particularly the attorney general’s call for a clean power grid by 2030, seem unattainable, given that the state’s first offshore wind farm is not expected to come online until next year and a second hasn’t even won final approval yet. The goal, however, matches one set by her rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is running to Healey’s left.

– The climate cabinet czar is one of several proposals to change the way state government operates in response to climate change. Healey said she would also boost spending on energy and environmental agencies to 1 percent of the state budget; a campaign spokesperson said the current spending level is .62 percent. 

– The climate plan is the first policy stance Healey has outlined in any depth in what so far has been an issue-less campaign.. The two lawmakers leading the charge on climate change on Beacon Hill – Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington and Rep. Jeff Roy of Franklin – both endorsed Healey.  Read more.

Masks optional on transportation: A Florida court ruling upends the transportation mask mandate imposed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means masks are no longer required on the MBTA, on airplanes, and in rideshares. Read more.

Baker pushes tax cuts: Gov. Charlie Baker, backed by members of the business community, steps up pressure on the Legislature to enact his package of tax cuts. He said it’s not a choice between investments and tax cuts; he said the state is in a position to do both. Read more.

Ooops: The December town meeting in Petersham violated various notice requirements, so a vote to tear down the deteriorating Nichewaug Inn gets tossed. Get set for a redo of the acrimonious debate. Read more.

OPINION

New vision for heating: Stephen Woerner of National Grid and Robert Rio of Associated Industries of Massachusetts  propose moving away from fossil fuels for heating by retaining existing appliances and pipes while shifting the fuel to renewable natural gas and green hydrogen. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Former Gloucester mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken is hired as deputy commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Game. (Gloucester Daily Times)

A group of area residents say they may seek an injunction to stop the city’s plans from cutting down 28 trees in Malcolm X Park in Roxbury. (Boston Herald

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Cambridge-based Moderna says a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine is showing better results and longer-lasting protection against the disease. (NPR)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Shawnee State University pays $400,000 to settle a case by a professor who was disciplined for failing to use the pronouns preferred by a transgender student. An appeal court sided with the professor and the university decided to settle to avoid more litigation. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, running significantly behind in a recent poll, goes on the offensive against Attorney General Maura Healey in a forum where the two Democrats running for governor aired their views. (Boston Globe) Globe columnist Adrian Walker wonders whether time is running out for the left-leaning Jamaica Plain legislator. 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Already sky-high home prices in the Boston area continue to rise. (Boston Globe)  

Burial rates are up on the South Shore and some cemeteries are facing space crunches. (Patriot Ledger)

Netflix is losing subscribers, presumably because of the greater competition it is facing. (Vox)

EDUCATION

Gov. Charlie Baker joins 17 other Republican governors asking President Biden’s Department of Education to not move forward with a proposed rule that would make it harder for charter schools to obtain federal funding. (Eagle-Tribune)

TRANSPORTATION

After an investigation found that 2,100 Massachusetts residents were given licenses without a road test, the drivers were required to take the test – and 65 percent of those who took it failed. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Boston’s Downtown Crossing is seeing a rash of violent incidents, including several apparently racially motivated attacks by Black juveniles. (Boston Herald)

MEDIA

The Washington Post is struggling to retain black employees, according to a report by the Washington Post Newspaper Guild, the union representing workers at the paper. (Columbia Journalism Review)