The long-running battle over the employment status of Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts is ramping up again, with dueling ballot measures filed Wednesday — one by a local union and drivers that would give drivers the right to organize, and the other from a group of “drivers and allies” to enshrine gig-drivers’ status as independent contractors — that aim to put the matter up for a vote.
The petitions are the first step in a lengthy process that could put the rights of tens of thousands of gig-economy drivers before voters in November 2024, and mark the latest round in a fight that has been simmering for years over whether such drivers are truly freelancers, or effectively employees of tech giants and thus eligible for more benefits and legal protections.
After winning a similar vote in California in 2020, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart poured millions of dollars into a 2022 ballot campaign and related legislation that would have formally established ride-hailing and delivery drivers in Massachusetts as independent contractors, with unlimited flexibility and limited benefits owed under state law.
Labor advocates fought back, insisting that drivers are entitled to full employment protections under state law and that the companies are seeking to save money by creating a system of second-class workers, the majority of them people of color.
Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court threw out the tech industry-backed ballot question, ruling the initiative was unconstitutional. Now both sides are back to try again.
Working conditions have worsened for drivers in recent years, according to Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the union filing the petition that would give them the ability to organize, as pay has dropped and the risk of deactivation has risen.
Cesar Ramirez, 59, an Uber and Lyft driver from Dorchester, said he makes half what he did a year ago for doing the same amount of work, due to declining driver rates. The companies periodically send out long, technical agreements in English, regardless of a driver’s native language, and won’t allow them to continue driving until they sign, Ramirez said.
Ramirez talks to fellow drivers on a show he hosts on a Spanish-language radio station, Latina 99.9 FM, and has heard horror stories about people who are deactivated with no notice or chance to defend themselves when a customer complains. When Ramirez’s vehicle was hit by a car that had run a red light in January, he said, Uber refused to pay for the repairs.
“We’re the ones who make the money for them, but they abuse us,” he said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “That’s why we’re fighting.”
An Uber spokesperson said Boston-area drivers’ median earnings before tips are more than $30 an hour, as they were last year. Drivers who are deactivated without warning for legal or safety reasons, or for illegal or fraudulent behavior, can appeal the decision in an “in-app review center,” he said.
A spokesperson for a ride-share industry group noted the 2022 ballot question sought to establish a minimum pay level at 120 percent of the state minimum wage and create a clear appeal process for deactivations. At Lyft, recent average earnings per ride were 10 percent higher than they were earlier this year, he noted.
Wednesday morning on Boston Common, drivers who say they’d rather remain independent contractors held a rally in support of a ballot measure of their own that they say would help drivers retain the flexible work life they’ve come to enjoy.
Before Charles Clemmons Mohammed worked for Lyft, he owned and operated a limousine company for over 25 years. He said this measure is the only way to secure a flexible schedule with added benefits, though labor advocates note that nothing would prevent drivers from retaining their flexibility if they are granted full employment benefits, despite the companies’ assertions otherwise.
“I know what it means to be independent,” Mohammed said. “I stand behind a ballot measure that will secure independence and provide new benefits for drivers like me.”
Their measure would protect drivers’ ability to choose their own hours, while requiring stipends to cover health insurance premiums, paid sick time and family and medical leave, and insurance for on-the-job injury. Like the prior industry-backed measure, it would set an earnings floor of $18 per hour, which is above minimum wage, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work. And while it’s similar to the 2022 proposals, backers say it addresses concerns that prompted judges to toss that from the ballot, and they filed multiple versions to ensure it passes legal muster.
“I love what Lyft has done for this community,” Octavio Mejia, a Lyft driver said. “They [have] stayed behind me every step of the way. They helped me in every possible way.”
Wednesday was the deadline to file ballot questions with the attorney general’s office. Next, groups must file with Secretary of State William Galvin’s office on or after Sept. 6, after which they can start collecting signatures, two rounds of which are due, first in December and then in July.
Meantime, the debate continues in at least two other venues.
A trial is slated to begin in May in a lawsuit filed by then-attorney general Maura Healey against Uber and Lyft in 2020, over the drivers’ employment status. In it, the state argues that the tech giants are breaking the law by failing to classify drivers as employees. When she filed the suit, Healey said the state had received more than 500 complaints from Uber and Lyft drivers over the last several years about their lack of access to minimum wage, earned sick time, and other employee protections.
The issue is also alive on Beacon Hill, where House and Senate members have filed bills that would give workers the ability to form a union, as well as mandate a guaranteed minimum wage and paid sick time, but wouldn’t classify them as employees. Neither bill has had a hearing yet this session.
“These drivers are really being mistreated,” Democratic Senator Jason Lewis, one of the bill sponsors, said. “They take advantage of them. . . . It’s really predatory in my view. They need to be able to organize and have a voice.”
But even within the labor movement, there is division on how gig drivers should be classified. Fernando Lemus, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, said he opposes the SEIU’s 32BJ’s ballot initiative and those unionization bills. Earlier this year, the union also voiced its concern that they would “carve out labor rights just to accommodate the so-called ‘gig’ economy.”
In a March letter to the state House of Representatives, the UFCW International Union noted that “any category short of full employee classification will deny workers’ rights they deserve.”
But to Roxana Rivera, who leads SEIU 32BJ in Massachusetts, the ballot initiative focused on the right to organize is just another way to give drivers rights and standing to negotiate with massive companies that — as the gig-driver industry is currently structured — hold all the cards.
“[The companies’] model is seriously flawed. It shifts all the risks to the workers,” said Rivera, whose union also supports the legislation proposed on Beacon Hill. “Forming a union will give the power back to the workers for them to be able to basically determine how this industry moves forward, too, that it’s not just these tech giants.”
Correspondent Macie Parker contributed to this report.