The fight over whether gig economy workers should be treated as full-time employees or independent contractors is heating up in Massachusetts, including a proposed Beacon Hill bill backed by companies like Uber and Lyft and, failing that, a potential 2022 ballot question. On GBH’s Greater Boston, Jim Braude was joined by Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the industry-backed Coalition for Independent Work, and Michael Firestone, director of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, which says treating such workers as employees is a matter of wage fairness.
Legislative and legal action has been swirling around the issue over the last year, in Massachusetts and across the country. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit in July 2020 to force Uber and Lyft to treat their workers as employees under Massachusetts law. The state legislature is considering legislation, supported by Lyft and Uber, that would change state law about how their workers can be classified. And, in November, California voters shot down Prop 22, allowing the ride-hailing companies to continue treating workers as independent contractors.
“The research shows: no matter how you ask the question, no matter which state you ask it in — including here in Massachusetts — workers overwhelmingly prefer being independent contractors to employees,” Yunits said. “Workers value their freedom more than anything else. They use that freedom to care for children, to go to school, to fit it around their schedules. That flexibility does not exist in the traditional economy.”
Firestone argued that independent delivery workers and ride-sharing drivers should be offered the same benefits and protections that Massachusetts companies have to provide under state law. “These big tech companies have saved billions of dollars by not paying their workers fairly, not reimbursing them for gas, not providing any benefits, and not following the law, which applied to every small business in Massachusetts,” Firestone said.
With an increasing share of rides and deliveries made by workers who are essentially working full time, “it’s so important that they be able to earn a minimum wage and be able to take a sick day,” Firestone added. “These are some of the biggest companies in the country, and they don’t provide the same benefits as a small business here in the state.”
But whether the question will be on Massachusetts voters’ ballots in 2022 is yet to be seen. A measure would have to be be filed by August 4, and Yunits said his organization is “looking at the preliminary steps” given the tight deadline.
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