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Mass. Is the Latest Battleground for Gig Worker Rights

While Massachusetts doesn’t have a ballot measure on gig workers like California did, the debate over how drivers at app-based companies are classified — effectively what benefits they should have — is gaining steam.

Uber, Lyft drivers
AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman blasted Uber, Lyft and other app-based companies for pushing to have their workers classified as independent contractors rather than employees, who would be entitled to health care, overtime and other benefits.
Steph Solis/masslive.com
(TNS) — Massachusetts is the latest battleground for the question dividing large app-based companies and some of their drivers: Are those drivers employees, who are entitled to health care, unemployment insurance and other benefits, or contractors?

Labor leaders, racial justice advocates and a handful of drivers who rallied outside of the State House Tuesday morning argue the drivers should be seen as employees with benefits and all.

“We will be seen. Our voices will be heard, and we are here to take on the gig economy and fight for our workers,” said Noemi Mimi Ramos, executive director of New England United 4 Justice. The organization represents roughly 5,000 Black and Brown residents in Boston, including independent contractors.

Drivers and representatives of app-based companies quickly prepared a response. The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, which represents Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other app-based companies, shared polling that suggests most app-based ride-hailing and delivery drivers would prefer to remain independent contractors instead of becoming employees.

While Massachusetts doesn’t have a ballot measure on gig workers like California did, the debate over how drivers at app-based companies are classified — effectively what benefits they should have — is gaining steam on Beacon Hill. The outcome stands to affect some 200,000 drivers in Massachusetts.

The companies are pushing for state legislators to pass a bill, H.1234, that would classify drivers as independent contractors, ensuring they can’t be terminated for declining a ride but excluding them from some employee protections.

The bill, filed by Democratic Reps. Mark Cusak of Braintree and Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield, would instead create a “portable benefits account” that the company pays into that a driver can pull from to cover health insurance costs or transfer to a retirement account. The companies would pay an amount equal to 4% of an eligible driver’s quarterly earnings into the account.

Tech companies and their supporters point to a survey of 446 app-based drivers in May published by Beacon Research. The survey not only said most drivers preferred to remain independent contractors but also said 88% of drivers listed flexible schedules as a major reason they use a rideshare or delivery service.

The Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights shared its own polling, suggesting that the majority of voters oppose the bill that would make drivers independent contractors and thus ineligible for certain protections and benefits.

Ridesharing companies have clashed with labor leaders and state officials in Massachusetts over the classification. Attorney General Maura Healey sued Uber and Lyft in July, asking a judge to order that they classify their drivers as employees, who are entitled to minimum wage, overtime and earned sick time. In March, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Kenneth W. Salinger denied Uber and Lyft’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

In California, the debate around gig workers led to a proposition deciding how drivers are classified. Months after a judge ordered Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees, voters approved a ballot measure that sided with the companies and classified drivers as independent contractors who cannot be guaranteed health insurance or other benefits.

The coalition has argued in the past that drivers should remain independent contractors because they can keep flexible schedules. The organization on Tuesday shared polling from May suggesting the workers that were interviewed would rather have flexible schedules as contractors than receive employee benefits.

Labor leaders accused companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash of trying to “skirt the law” — as AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman put it — while organizations representing those companies say the opposition isn’t reflective of what their drivers actually want.

At least some of those drivers agree.

“We had gone through a hard time during the COVID-19 crisis because we were not employees. We are independent contractors, according to their policies, so we were not receiving any benefits from them during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mutwaly Hamid, a Lynn resident and a driver in the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.

Hamid, 32, started working at Uber part-time in 2018 as he studied computer science at Bunker Hill Community College. At the time, he made enough to cover rent, groceries and other bills. He sent some money back to his brothers, sisters and mother in his native Sudan.

Two years later, he said, he and colleagues had to work well over 40 hours a week to make as much as he did when he first started.

Hamid continued to drive for ridesharing companies when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, but he stopped after three months. He feared he would contract the virus.

He secured unemployment payments through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program set up by the Baker administration to contractors who didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits. “It wasn’t enough money, so sometimes you’d have to go out and work during the crisis,” Hamid said.

Beth Griffith, 40, of Dedham, credits Uber and Lyft with helping her bring in extra income aside from her health care job and enabling her to focus on her own business, a renewable energy company.

“The pay really was good. You could make 1,500 to 2,000 a week before expenses,” she said. “Then they started changing the commission structure to per minute, per mile. Then they lowered it to 66 cents a mile to the point where I was only driving when they were giving out bonuses.”

Griffith last drove on March 8 2020, days before the pandemic was declared. When she heard about the COVID-19 outbreak from the Biogen meeting, she stopped driving for ridesharing companies.

Now executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, Griffith is pushing for employee benefits for those who do drive for those companies. The organization has more than 1,100 members, which includes drivers and supporters.

“Don’t believe all the Uber/ Lyft hype. Analyze the data. Even in the fine print when they say Uber/ Lyft drivers made $39 an hour, in the fine print it says this is before expenses,” she said, which is the amount drivers can make in some U.S. cities. “People can lie, but numbers never do.”

But other drivers say they have seen their take-home pay increase since the commission structure changed.

Matt Rose, 42, of Wareham, has been driving for several companies over the past five years. He said he has made more money because of the per-minute rates, meaning that even short trips in Boston or other crowded areas will help him bring in enough money.

Rose used to install sprinkler systems in commercial buildings until a medical issue prevented him from hauling heavy pipes. He was already driving for Uber and Lyft on the side, so he took on more trips and signed up for other services. Now he works for eight services, ranging from Instacart and Roadie at least 35 hours a week, though he says most drivers work part-time or occasionally.

Rose prefers to remain a contractor. He said the current structure enables him to choose when and where he works. He can spend time with his two children, chaperone on school trips and free up his weekends.

“I think people need to keep in mind that we’re doing what we do because we love our freedom and flexibility,” he said. “Apps like Lyft, Uber, they’re tools in our bucket, so to speak, we have the ability to use them as we want to to make money. We lose all of that the moment we become an employee. I just don’t think we’re seeing past that point.”

But Hamid said flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of health care and other benefits.

“We are entitled to basic workers’ rights,” he said, “and we are going to fight because we are not alone.”

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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