Millions of dollars and countless hours of debate have been spent on a question that could define the future of work in Massachusetts and around the country: Are gig workers such as ride-hail drivers employees of tech companies like Uber and Lyft, or do they work for themselves?
The distinction has dramatic implications for those workers, who as employees would have benefits and protections, including unemployment insurance and collective bargaining rights. But the online platforms that treat their workers as independent contractors say the jobs may not exist if they were forced to carry traditional payrolls.
The discussion is heating up with the prospect of a more labor-friendly Biden administration, and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s ongoing lawsuit seeks to force Uber and Lyft to classify drivers as employees.
Meanwhile, those companies and other gig-economy businesses — emboldened by a successful November ballot initiative in California that defined their workers as contractors — are pursuing similar victories elsewhere.
But there may never be a simple answer to the question of who gig workers work for. People on both sides of the debate acknowledge there may be a need for special protections that recognize the novelty of the labor arrangement.
The Boston Independent Drivers Guild, an association of Uber and Lyft drivers, is pushing for a package of measures it says would help workers, regardless of the ultimate decision on their status. Among those are a $20 minimum wage for drivers, along with a state-level path to unionization and other workplace benefits.
“People want to help drivers, and if we put on the table raises for drivers, access to basic worker rights, access to unionization, then lawmakers and the public will support our initiative,” said Henry DeGroot, the organization’s executive director.
DeGroot said he wants to frame the debate around issues that are more specific than the distinctions of employment law.
Other countries have already created a third category of workers. Canada, for instance, allows some companies to call their workers dependent contractors, entitled to some of the protections enjoyed by employees.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston employment attorney who has been a leading advocate for gig workers and has argued for years that they should be considered employees, sees no need for such an arrangement here. Workers should not have to cede any ground on employment, she said.
She said efforts by gig employers to create such a system would result in a situation “where workers have to fight for each and every right from the ground up.” Employee status already conveys many important protections, Liss-Riordan said. “The whole point of employment is that that’s already been figured out.”
Labor advocates say a 2004 Massachusetts law makes clear that workers are to be classified as employees if they are being directed by the company that hires them, are working within the normal scope of the business, or are doing a job that is not part of an independently established occupation.
But in practice, many gig workers have not been helped by that law, Liss-Riordan said, because they often have to sign agreements that limit their ability to go to court over employment disputes.
Healey’s suit seeks to apply the law more broadly.
“Gig economy workers shouldn’t be forced to decide between flexibility in their jobs and important job protections — our state laws allow for both,” she said in a statement. “When workers are misclassified as independent contractors, they’re denied critical protections and benefits including access to minimum wage, overtime, earned sick time, and anti-retaliation protections.”
Uber, like other gig-economy companies, has said it is willing to cooperate with lawmakers here and elsewhere to come up with a system that provides additional rights to workers.
“We look forward to working with Massachusetts leaders to ensure that drivers are able to gain new protections and benefits while keeping the flexibility they overwhelmingly want,” it said in a statement.
The company said many drivers do not want to be classified as employees, concerned that they would not be able to set their own hours and decide where they work. Uber and other companies say they may not offer the same services if they were forced to keep even occasional drivers on staff.
That argument helped gig employers convince voters in California to toss out employment protections for workers that were similar to those on the books in Massachusetts.
California’s new law gives gig workers some protections beyond those of other independent contractors, including health care subsidies for regular employees. But it has been criticized by many who believe it gives employers a clear path toward reducing their responsibilities.
After the November vote, the grocery conglomerate Albertsons decided to cut delivery driver jobs, outsourcing that work to the gig delivery firm DoorDash. On Tuesday, a group of workers sued in California, arguing the new statewide law governing gig work rules are unconstitutional.
The win emboldened companies that use gig-economy labor to step up their advocacy in other states. The companies may eventually push for Massachusetts voters to weigh in, as well. But the issue also is likely to come before Massachusetts legislators.
The recently passed economic development bill in Massachusetts established a Future of Work Commission to take on issues including how workplace policies might change to reflect the increasing reliance on gig employment.
State Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who is cochairman of the committee handling economic and technology legislation, said he has “no interest” in changing the law to explicitly designate gig workers as independent contractors.
Most important, however, is revising the state’s system of employment law to better reflect the way people work now, Lesser said. He has called for changes, including a program to make it easier for people to maintain benefits while working for several companies at once.
Above all, Lesser said, he wants to make sure workers are protected. He pointed to the huge loss in gig-economy business when the pandemic began. Ultimately, the federal stimulus program provided unemployment payments to gig workers who would otherwise have not been eligible.
“The companies can call it whatever they want, but at the end of the day, people were relying on this work,” Lesser said.
Rahkeem Morris, chief executive of Syrg, a Boston startup that allows businesses such as fast-food restaurants to rehire former workers who want to pick up flexible shifts, said he has not been able to work out a model in which every worker on the platform becomes an employee of Syrg.
He said the costs of such an arrangement would make it difficult for Syrg to offer a service that would be different from that of a temp agency — a model he is trying to improve upon. A better idea, he said, is to make it easier to provide benefits and other perks to contractors without having to classify them as regular employees.
“There is a mutually beneficial solution that helps hourly workers get additional income on their own terms so their work revolves around their life, and not vice versa,” he said.