BOSTON (State House News Service) – Mark Austin, an Uber and Lyft driver who earned $150 by early Wednesday morning through the ride-hailing apps, pleaded with state lawmakers outside the State House to not strip away workers’ independence by classifying them as employees.
A retired chef, Austin said driving for the ride-hailing services is the “best job” he’s ever had. The Weymouth resident said he makes money based on “ingenuity, time and effort” while manipulating his own schedule six days each week.
“My message is: Why fix what’s not broken?” Austin said. “My opinion, if you change this, you’ll break it and destroy all the good things that come from it.”
Austin and other app-based drivers joined the latest push from the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work — funded by Uber, Lyft and Instacart — to maintain their independent contractor status and reject labor unions’ efforts to install employee protections.
It’s unclear if their advocacy could trigger another voter referendum. The Supreme Judicial Court last summer tossed a planned ballot question around the employment status of app-based drivers. The court said the inclusion of a liability provision reflected “at least two substantively distinct policy decisions” in one question, putting the proposal at odds with a constitutional requirement that initiative petitions contain only related or mutually dependent subjects.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Maura Healey against Uber and Lyft over the classification of drivers — and accusing the companies of denying basic employee benefits and protection — is still pending.
A judge held a Wednesday afternoon conference to review the status of the nearly three-year-old case. A trial is now slated to begin in May 2024, a spokesperson for Attorney General Andrea Campbell said. That timeline would put the trial six months ahead of the election, and well into the process that initiative petition sponsors must follow to ensure ballot access.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work needs to keep its “options open” and “keep our eyes on” the possibility of filing a ballot question for 2024, said spokesman Conor Yunits. The deadline to place a possible ballot question into the mix is in early August.
App-based drivers are ambivalent about whether a ballot question or legislation helps them reach their goal, Yunits indicated.
Yet drivers at the press conference criticized proposals that would require them to obtain special operating licenses from every municipality where they work and to report to designated base locations.
App-based drivers embraced a bill from Rep. Mark Cusack (H 1848) that would preserve their ability to be independent contractors with a minimum hourly wage of $18 and benefits like paid sick time and family leave and health care stipends. They also support a bill from Rep. Daniel Cahill (H 961) to create a portable benefits framework that would allow drivers to purchase health insurance and replace lost income due to an illness or accident.
“Drivers deserve to have some certainty and not to be under attack or forced into employment. Slavery is dead, if you didn’t know,” said Charles Clemons Muhammad, an app-based driver. “There are two bills that would accomplish this. I don’t care how it gets done, but securing flexibility — again, flexibility — and getting new benefits simply needs to get done.”
Members of a separate coalition that opposes those bills and wants to help app-based drivers form a union also stood outside the State House Wednesday morning — though they did not interrupt the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work press conference, unlike what an organizer had expected. The Drivers Demand Justice Coalition supports bills from Rep. Frank Moran and Sen. Jason Lewis (H 1099/ S 666) establishing collective bargaining rights for app-based drivers.
“Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft may claim they are lobbying for new state laws because they care about their drivers, yet they have built an industry that is the equivalent of a digital sweatshop, keeping drivers working long hours with little pay and almost no protection,” said Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU — which is a member of the Drivers Demand Justice Coalition — in a statement.
Those coalition members also lobbied lawmakers Wednesday about a Lewis budget amendment that would protect app-based drivers from becoming deactivated on ride-hailing platforms — often without the ability to appeal — by tracking the practice.
Domingo Castillo, an app-based driver and 32BJ SEIU member, said he was struck in a hit-and-run accident while driving a Lyft rental a few months ago.
“Despite the police report explaining what happened, I was still deactivated by Lyft and then billed for the full rental period, even though I could no longer drive the car,” Castillo said in a statement. “I could never reach anyone over the phone to appeal Lyft’s decision. This kind of humiliating, infuriating, and totally unfair treatment is commonplace — and it has to stop.”