Flexibility or benefits? App-based drivers are debating whether to be classified as employees or to remain independent contractors

(Photo by Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash)

By Cici Yu
Boston University News Service

A group backed by Uber, Lyft and several delivery companies is looking to get a ballot question in front of voters in Massachusetts, asking them to define delivery and app-based drivers as “independent contractors,” a move with potentially far-reaching implications for drivers and gig-workers.

Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work and Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, said in an email that “over 100,000 certified signatures” for different versions of the ballot question were submitted over the last few weeks.

The group’s website publicized as early as Nov. 16 that 260,000 signatures had been collected.

Flexibility & Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, a committee formed to support the ballot question, launched a video on Dec. 6 to make their case to voters. In it, the group emphasized that having drivers be classified as independent contractors would ensure not only some benefits, like paid sick time and money for gas, but also worker flexibility.

It also claimed passing the measure would help address “a lawsuit in Massachusetts” that could “take away flexibility from app-based drivers,” likely referring to a lawsuit Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is leading against Uber and Lyft.

Originally filed in 2020, Healey seeks to have Uber and Lyft drivers recognized as employees for their respective companies, a specific designation that, under state laws, would “allow drivers access to critical labor rights and benefits, such as minimum wage, overtime, and earned sick time,” according to an official release on Mass.gov.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney who is active with the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, an alliance of workers, civil rights, and labor groups seeking to protect gig workers in Massachusetts, said the “flexibility” these companies advocate for is based on a “false premise,” and there is no contradiction between having flexibility and having all the rights and protections of employees. 

“They don’t [currently] have the protection of our state anti-discrimination law,” Liss-Riordan said. “Or any of the other things that employees in Massachusetts get, like health care benefits, paid family leaves, unemployment insurance if they lose their jobs, workers compensation if they get injured in their jobs and the list goes on and on.”

Liss-Riordan said the biggest issue for the drivers is that they are bearing the costs — from gas, insurance and repairs fees — of the company’s business by providing their own vehicles.

“Because the companies don’t classify them as employees, they’re not even guaranteed to make minimum wage overtime,” Liss-Riordan said. “Gig workers like other workers deserve all of the rights and benefits and protections that employers have throughout Massachusetts.”

Liss-Riordan added that the gig industry is largely made up of Black and brown workers who encountered hardships during the pandemic, a time in which drivers faced all kinds of issues, according to Beth Griffith, chairperson and executive director of Boston Independent Drivers Guild.

“During the pandemic, there was no surge,” said Griffith, who is also a driver. “Some of our drivers ended up being homeless and ended up being in a car repossessed. They couldn’t work because we were closed.”

Luis Ramos, a Lyft driver from Worcester, said he likes the flexibility of the job, which allows him to take care of his sick girlfriend.

“I’m not the only one here,” he said. “I got a lot of friends who do Lyft and Uber and they say it’s not going to be the same if we need to wake up at 8 a.m. and your boss is telling you to work from Monday to Friday from 8 to 4.”

Raya Denny, an undergraduate student at Springfield who works as a part-time Lyft driver, said her flexible schedule allows her to get college work done.

“It’s just really refreshing being able to have the flexibility and independence that I have right now and not having to work for a boss,” Denny said.

Denny also said she wants to remain an independent contractor.

“If we were to be unionized, and be put as employees, not a lot of drivers would stick to this job,” she said. “Stay in your world as an employer, and we stay in our world of self-employed.”

“They’re putting out false advertising all across Massachusetts, both to voters, consumers and the workers themselves that the only way that these jobs can stay flexible is if they don’t have to provide all of the rights that employers have to provide to their workers,” Liss-Riordan said. “And it’s just a lie.”

Recent polling from Beacon Research shows that 83% of Massachusetts drivers prefer to remain independent contractors while receiving new benefits. By a margin of 7 to 1, rideshare and delivery drivers in Massachusetts support the ballot questions.

But Liss-Riordan said the result of the survey depends on how the question is asked, such as “Do you want to keep your flexible schedule?” 

“(A) majority of them will say yes, but they can keep those flexible schedules and get their rights under the Massachusetts laws,” she said. 

Liss-Riordan said she is confident that Massachusetts voters will not be fooled, and will reject the ballot initiative.

“If they get away with this, every industry out there is going to try to figure out how to get around Massachusetts protections for workers,” she said. “This issue is not just about Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts, it’s about the future of work in Massachusetts.”

Editor’s note, 12/15/21: We, at the Boston University News Service, would like to remind our content-sharing partners that while we are happy to share our reporting, significantly altering the copy and adding errors is an insult to our operation. We do not endorse, nor tolerate the alterations made by a version of this article being hosted on Eminetra.com.

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