Delivery drivers for the Patriot Ledger newspaper are employees of GateHouse Media, not independent contractors, the state Appeals Court ruled Tuesday, a decision that could affect other GateHouse drivers but likely won’t have a major impact on an industry that has largely outsourced its delivery services.
The lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, David King, who delivered newspapers for the Quincy publication from 2009 to 2011, and passed away last fall, claimed he was an employee under Massachusetts law. The state has a strict definition of what constitutes an independent contractor, including that a worker’s job falls “outside the usual course of the business of the employer.”
In its decision, the Appeals Court cites GateHouse’s description of itself as a “newspaper publisher and distributor” in its agreements with delivery drivers, as well as the fact that GateHouse deals directly with drivers and the subscribers they deliver to. Therefore, the court ruled, carriers “furnish services in the ordinary course of GateHouse’s business and accordingly are GateHouse employees.”
As employees, drivers would be eligible for benefits and workplace protections that independent contractors don’t receive.
King’s attorney, James W. Simpson Jr., noted that the ruling was specific to drivers at the Patriot Ledger, not a “blanket decision that every newspaper carrier in Massachusetts has got to be an employee.” But Simpson said he is in the midst of a similar employee misclassification case involving drivers at The Standard-Times in New Bedford, also a GateHouse publication, that might have broader implications. Unlike in the Patriot Ledger case, the Standard-Times complaint involves a federal interstate commerce law that could preempt a portion of the state’s independent contractor law.
GateHouse owns hundreds of newspapers and news sites around the country, according to its website, including nine daily and more than 100 weekly publications in Massachusetts.
An attorney for GateHouse declined to comment on the ruling, but Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said he was disappointed by the decision, but not surprised given the state’s strict independent contractor laws.
“The newspaper business has changed dramatically,” he said. “Newspapers are focusing more on the core business of what they do, which is reporting the news. And the distribution of that news is something that is better left to those who are in the business of distributing news.”
“It’s really not even fundamental to what newspapers do anymore,” he added.
Even if the ruling in the King case did have broader reach, it wouldn’t have a major impact because so many newspapers outsource their delivery operations, including The Boston Globe.
“I don’t know off the top of my head of any that employ their own drivers,” Ambrogi said.
But it could have an impact on independent contractor lawsuits that are becoming more common in the gig economy, where businesses hire freelancers and contractors instead of full-time employees to keep costs down.
Boston attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan has handled dozens of worker misclassification lawsuits, including a high-profile case pending against the ride-hailing service Uber. The Appeals Court ruling could be significant in the Uber case, she said, because it spells out that “a business can’t avoid the wage laws by claiming that they are not in the business that they are obviously in.”
“This is the first explicit appellate decision that we have in Massachusetts that spells out that companies can’t do that,” she said.
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.