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Unions back basic benefits bill for Uber, Lyft drivers

A driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his car (Richard Vogel/AP)
A driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his car (Richard Vogel/AP)

Encouraged by the arrival of a governor who has already gone to the mat against Uber and Lyft, a growing coalition of labor leaders and workers will press lawmakers this session to extend significant new protections to drivers on the popular ride-hailing platforms.

A new bill (HD 2071 / SD 1162) backed by the International Association of Machinists and 32BJ SEIU seeks to ensure that workers for Uber, Lyft and other for-hire ride services can access a guaranteed minimum wage, paid sick time, unemployment insurance, discrimination protection and collective bargaining rights.

The Machinists' union fought unsuccessfully last session for a narrower proposal focused mostly on collective bargaining. This time around, 32BJ SEIU — which in the past has organized personal care attendants and child care workers who, like app-based drivers, do not share a central work site — has added its muscle.

"This is the first time in Massachusetts that two union organizations of this size have teamed up to help drivers organize and pass legislation," the coalition plans to declare Tuesday, according to information obtained by the News Service.

Potential benefits for drivers

The bill does not require drivers complete any minimum number of hours to qualify for a wage floor, workers compensation or discrimination protection. Some hour limits might come into play for benefits such as health care once those have been settled via the collective bargaining system the bill would create.

Their effort faces opposition from a company-backed coalition of businesses and their allies, who have their own proposal on the table to make some new benefits available to drivers.

The latest union-backed 94-page bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Moran of Lawrence and Sens. Jason Lewis of Winchester and Liz Miranda of Boston, substantially expands on a version some lawmakers proposed in the 2021-2022 session that totaled just a bit more than a dozen pages.

Lewis said the bill he filed last session focused only on allowing drivers to collectively bargain with companies over compensation and benefits. This time around, Lewis said, lawmakers and supporters are instead looking to enshrine directly in state law that drivers are owed a minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other benefits and protections.

"We just realized that why should these workers have to go through a bargaining process to get those very fundamental rights and protections when those are already available to most other workers?" Lewis told the News Service. "Workers that are organized in unions, existing unions, they don't have to use the collective bargaining process to get anti-discrimination protection or to ensure that they at least get paid the minimum wage or earn sick time."

The bill would also require companies to cover some driving expenses, a sore spot for many drivers who say the combined cost of gasoline and vehicle maintenance depresses their earnings.

Ehab Hilali, an organizer with the Machinists-supported Massachusetts Independent Drivers Guild who has driven for Uber and Lyft here since 2017, said most drivers earn "way less than the minimum wage" and need to put in 50, 60 or even 70 hours of work per week to make a living.

"When I'm talking to my fellow drivers, I tell them we are less than a regular employee. We're not independent contractor drivers. We are none of that," Hilali said in an interview. "We have zero benefits. Nothing. We don't have vacation, no sick pay, no health insurance, nothing."

The bill would also require the companies to pay into the state's unemployment insurance system, and drivers could access those jobless benefits.

The legislation focuses only on transportation network companies used to hail rides, the most well known of which are Uber and Lyft. It would not apply to drivers on app-based delivery platforms such as DoorDash, though Lewis said he hopes its passage will create a model that can extend to other sectors.

Worker classification not part of bill's aim

Lewis said the bill is "essentially silent" on the facet of gig economy work conditions that fueled much of the debate last session: whether drivers are classified as independent contractors or as employees.

In July 2020, when she was still attorney general, Maura Healey sued Uber and Lyft alleging the companies are violating state wage and hour laws by classifying their drivers as independent contractors and illegally denying them benefits and protections they deserved as employees. The companies funded a ballot question campaign that would have declared in state law that drivers are independent contractors while providing them with some new benefits, but their proposal was deemed ineligible for the ballot by the courts.

Lewis said his proposal aims to ensure drivers can access the listed rights regardless of how the pending court battle or a potential ballot fight redux plays out — or in other words, he believes even if drivers were legally declared contractors, they would still be owed the minimum wage, collective bargaining rights and other benefits in the bill.

The bill represents an early salvo this session in a long-running debate over pay and benefits for the hundreds of thousands of Bay Staters who drive, often part-time hours, on the popular ride-hailing platforms. Some drivers say they like the part-time flexibility of the work, while others are demanding basic benefits.

The fight could take place across three fronts: in the Legislature, in court and, if the powerful companies make another pass after a stumble last year, on the campaign trail.

There's no evidence that top House and Senate Democrats have app-based driver rights and benefits on their to-do lists. Even last year, when the issue was headed for the ballot box, legislative leaders showed no interest in intervening as they did for other initiative petitions.

Bay State voters might have decided whether drivers should be deemed independent contractors or employees, plus extended new benefits, if not for a drafting misstep.

The Supreme Judicial Court in June tossed the proposed ballot question because it sought to tackle both the relationship between network companies and drivers as well as the liabilities those companies face when a member of the public is injured by a driver, which judges deemed "at least two substantively distinct policy decisions." The Massachusetts Constitution requires initiative petitions to contain only related or mutually dependent subjects.

Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash, the industry players that had been funding the ballot campaign before justices derailed it, have neither ruled out nor committed to taking another pass at an initiative petition.

In the meantime, a company-funded coalition continues to argue that an overwhelming majority of drivers prefer independent contractor status to the full employee status that the AG's lawsuit alleges is required.

"Several bills were filed last week claiming to represent the voices of ride share and delivery drivers but it's obvious the measures do not reflect the clearly stated needs and wishes of the vast majority of drivers across Massachusetts," said Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work that the quartet of companies funds. "Over 80% of drivers spoke loud and clear last year when they said they wanted to remain independent contractors. It's time to respect drivers and their wishes."

The industry-backed coalition instead supports a pair of bills. One, filed by last session's Revenue Committee Co-chair Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree, largely mirrors the ballot question that justices spiked (HD 3726).

The other bill, filed by Rep. Daniel Cahill of Lynn, seeks to create "portable benefit accounts" that drivers could use.

"Rideshare and delivery drivers spent last year making their voices heard loud and clear: they want to remain independent. Survey after survey shows that drivers rely on the flexibility that comes with being independent contractors, and they do not want to be employees," Yunits said in a statement. "We're encouraged to see two bills introduced that seek to give drivers what they want. Now it's critical that legislators, drivers, labor leaders and industry come together to pass a bill that prioritizes flexibility and supports the livelihoods of tens of thousands of drivers."

Hilali, who has been organizing with the Independent Drivers Guild since November, said he appreciates the flexibility that comes with driving for Uber and Lyft but argued the companies are "using that against us" to minimize worker rights.

Two and a half years after Healey filed it, the AG's lawsuit is still in the discovery phase in Suffolk Superior Court with new Attorney General Andrea Campbell now holding the reins.

Healey, meanwhile, has taken over as governor. Supporters are optimistic her inauguration will shift the landscape, hoping she uses the bully pulpit to push for lawmaking action on an issue where she once pursued litigation.

"It's an area of worker rights that has long needed to be addressed by our state government, and I think Governor Healey, I'm very hopeful, is going to be a champion for all workers as she has been in her time as attorney general, and that includes workers who are in the gig economy," Lewis said.

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