A debate that could shape the future of the so-called gig economy in Massachusetts is heating up on Beacon Hill this week, as advocacy groups face off over how state law should treat workers who earn money through services such as Uber and Lyft.
The discussion centers in part on whether people who use smartphone applications to take jobs based on their availability are independent contractors or employees of the technology companies whose platforms connect them to customers.
On Wednesday, a group of those companies announced the creation of an advocacy coalition that also includes the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and other civil rights organizations, along with Associated Industries of Massachusetts and other trade groups.
The group argues that gig workers are not employees, a designation that provides robust job protections, but that many in the industry ―and some of its workforce ― say could limit the flexibility on which the arrangement is built. They want lawmakers to clearly classify gig workers in state law as contractors, while also making it easier for them to receive benefits.
“App-based work has been key for Black and brown communities, who continue to suffer discrimination through traditional hiring practices,” J. Keith Motley, chief executive of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said in a statement. “Having the flexibility to work when, where, and for however long we want, with few barriers to entry, means we are able to build work around our lives, instead of the other way around.”
On the other side are worker representatives who say there’s nothing stopping an employee from having as much flexibility as a contractor does.
The Boston Independent Drivers Guild, an association that says it includes about 800 Uber and Lyft drivers, plans to hold a State House rally Thursday to push for reforms, including higher wages, the right to unionize, and a temporary moratorium on adding new drivers to the rolls of the ride-hailing companies.
Henry DeGroot, the organization’s executive director, said he believes these reforms make sense however the question of employment status shakes out.
“Uber, Lyft, and the other app companies present a false choice: either workers’ rights or flexibility,” DeGroot said.
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. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is litigating an ongoing suit against Uber and Lyft seeking to force them to recognize their workers as employees.
The debate is playing out as gig economy companies are emboldened by an electoral win last year in California, where they convinced voters to overturn a state law classifying gig workers as employees.
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.