Questions on the legal classification of thousands of gig economy workers moved one step closer to the 2022 ballot this month when two petitions supported by Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash cleared one of their final procedural hurdles.
The office of Secretary of State William F. Galvin said last week that four ballot measures, including two related to the status of app-based drivers, gathered more than the 80,239 signatures required to move toward voters’ hands. If the issue lands on the ballot, it would make Massachusetts the latest battleground in a high-stakes dispute, allowing voters to decide whether drivers and deliverers for the four on-demand companies should be considered contractors or employees, a distinction with major implications for the rights and benefits they are entitled to in the state.
If backed by voters, the tech industry-backed ballot petitions would allow Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash to continue classifying their drivers and deliverers as independent contractors rather than employees, while also granting the workers some new benefits. Supporters say the proposal would give workers the flexibility they cherish, while also granting them new benefits including health care stipends, paid sick time, paid family and medical leave, and occupational accident insurance.
But labor advocates say the gig workers already should be guaranteed the rights and benefits of full employees under state law, and they point out that in practice, few workers actually would receive the new benefits promised in the proposal. The health care stipend, for example, would be available only to drivers who work at least 15 hours of “engaged time” per week, but most Massachusetts drivers work less than that, according to data from the industry coalition. “Engaged time” accrues when drivers are actively on rides or deliveries, but does not include waiting for or between trips.
On a separate track from the ballot petition, Attorney General Maura Healey is suing Uber and Lyft over the same issue, arguing the tech giants are currently breaking the law by failing to classify drivers as employees.
The tech-backed coalition is pushing two slightly different versions of the question, one of which would require paid safety training sessions for drivers, including topics like collision avoidance and sexual assault prevention. Proponents are expected to move forward with only one question, the secretary of state’s office said.
The tech-backed coalition supporting the petitions is “thrilled” that the questions are moving toward the ballot, said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the group. Meanwhile, Chrissy Lynch, chief of staff at the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and interim director of the labor-backed coalition that opposes the initiative, slammed “massive out-of-state companies” for “[trying] to buy a law at the expense of Massachusetts workers, consumers, and taxpayers.”
A similar fight over how to classify gig economy workers recently took hold in California, where Proposition 22 became the most expensive ballot measure in state history. Voters there approved classifying app-based drivers and delivery workers as independent contractors, but the matter has been embroiled in court disputes, with a California judge declaring it unconstitutional in August.
Putting a proposed law or constitutional amendment before voters is a long, arduous process. The four initiatives that gathered enough signatures will be sent in January to the Legislature, where Yunits said the coalition is “confident” that state lawmakers can find a legislative solution to the dispute. If Massachusetts lawmakers do not take action, proponents must file an additional 13,374 signatures by July 6 to secure a place on the ballot. And even for questions that meet all the requirements, there’s always the possibility that litigation could strike them before voters have their say.
Another source of uncertainty is the Norfolk district attorney’s office, which is investigating the possibility of fraud in the collection of signatures for the app-based driver questions and the two others that cleared the latest hurdle. But that probe, which centers on alleged forged signatures gathered by an outside company, appears unlikely to derail any of the initiatives, The Boston Globe has reported.
Two dozen proposed laws already have lost their shot at appearing on next year’s ballot. In August, 28 ballot questions were filed with state officials. Several measures backed by the Massachusetts Republican Party, including proposals for voter identification and related to abortion, missed the signature threshold.
Two other ballot initiatives also cleared the hurdle, state officials said last week. One is related to rates of dental benefit plans. The other would increase the number of licenses available to food stores for the sale of alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption, while leaving in place a cap. Earlier this year, the head of the Massachusetts Package Store Association described it as an “olive branch” compromise with food and convenience stores that favor an unlimited number of licenses.
Another question expected to appear on the 2022 ballot: the so-called “millionaires tax,” a proposed constitutional amendment which would impose a 4 percent surtax on annual personal income above $1 million. That measure cleared its last procedural hurdle before the 2022 ballot in June, when overwhelming majorities in the Democratic-dominated Legislature backed it. According to a state analysis that is now six years old, the measure could generate anywhere between $1.6 billion and $2.2 billion in revenue each year, though opponents argue the estimates are inflated.