Will a New Gig Worker Exception Proposed in Massachusetts Change the Future of Work?

“Last year, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart succeeded in getting Californians to vote in favor of a ballot measure exempting them from classifying drivers and delivery workers as employees,” remembers CNN. So after their success with Californian’s Proposition 22, “the companies are in the early stages of taking a similar approach in Massachusetts…” The Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, an alliance that includes labor advocates and community groups, argued this week that the Massachusetts measure would “permanently create a ‘second class’ status” for the workers… [T]he proposed Massachusetts ballot initiative presents a minimum earnings guarantee of “120 percent of minimum wage” based on “engaged time,” meaning the only time counted is when a driver is fulfilling a ride or delivery request but not the time they spend waiting for a gig. (An analysis from UC Berkeley Labor Center had estimated the pay guarantee under Prop 22 for Uber and Lyft drivers would be equivalent to a wage of $5.64 per hour, instead of $15.60 or 120% of a $13 minimum wage, given such loopholes.) Workers would also receive $0.26 reimbursement per engaged mile to cover vehicle upkeep and gas. (The UC Berkeley Labor Center previously pointed out that Prop 22’s $0.30 reimbursement is lower than the IRS’ estimated $0.58 per mile cost of owning and operating a vehicle.) While the proposal includes a health care contribution from a company for certain qualifying workers, that too is based on “engaged time” and only a small portion of workers would likely qualify, according to the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, due to minimum engaged time requirements…

Some workers could also earn paid sick time, paid family and medical leave, and in lieu of worker’s compensation, benefits for medical and disability in cases of on-the-job injuries. Workers would have the ability to appeal if their accounts are deactivated, and would receive training on public safety issues. It would also let gig companies avoid contributions to unemployment or Social Security, and deny app-based workers more robust legal protections around discrimination, including when it comes to compensation.

Lyft, Uber and other members of the coalition, want their proposition included on November 2022 ballots, TechCrunch reports. (Though the question still has to pass a legal review and receive enough signatures from voters.)

But a Boston Globe columnist argues the measure isn’t just about gig-working conditions. “It’s about the future of work in America.”
If voters side with the tech giants, the labor landscape will be transformed, immuring a giant and growing body of workers in a world with fewer benefits and protections. And where ride-hailing drivers go, nurses, restaurant workers, executive assistants, programmers, and others will surely follow. The tech giants who rule the world are already dreaming of the day when those workers, too, will be classified as mobile, independent contractors, with fewer benefits and less security than employees. “If they get away with this, every industry is going to line up to ask for an exception,” said labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has battled the gig companies for years. “And before you know it, the entire fabric of workplace protections will be gone…”

Plenty of people are fine with the fact that that means there will always be a bunch of drivers milling around unpaid and unprotected, waiting for us to summon them. But if blue Massachusetts follows liberal California and approves the formal creation of a second-class workforce, the rest of the country will follow, as will other industries. “This is a question of whether we are going to be a society that recognizes the dignity of work,” Liss-Riordan said.