Original coalition member not on board with app-based driver ballot Q

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – In March, when an industry-backed coalition launched its effort to change worker classification and benefits for app-based drivers in Massachusetts, it counted the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts as one of its “founding members” and led its first-ever press release with a quote from the League’s CEO.

But with the coalition now pursuing a ballot question and a contentious campaign looming, board members at the Urban League of Eastern Mass. are distancing themselves from the effort, saying they have not yet taken a stance on the initiative petition that could prompt a seismic shift in the labor landscape.

Joseph Feaster, an attorney who chairs the chapter’s board, told the News Service that the Urban League of Eastern Mass. does not view itself as a member of the Coalition for Independent Work despite the publicized affiliation. Any suggestion otherwise, he said, is an “overrepresentation.”

The nonprofit’s board “hasn’t taken a position on that ballot question” that sponsors filed earlier this month “because we haven’t seen it or reviewed it,” Feaster said.

“We’re not part of any coalition,” Feaster said, stressing that he could speak only on behalf of his chapter and not for other Urban League affiliates, some of whom have supported similar efforts. “We’ve been lifted up where it may be useful for those in the coalition to put our name there, but that’s not where we are.”

As of Monday morning, the Coalition for Independent Work still named Feaster’s group under its website’s “members” tab.

“To know that it’s still listed in that way is a little bit disconcerting,” Feaster said. “We will seek to address that.”

The Coalition for Independent Work, which is funded by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart, has been pushing to rewrite Massachusetts state law to designate all app-based drivers as independent contractors rather than employees — a practice Attorney General Maura Healey alleges violates existing wage and hour laws — while extending them some additional benefits such as a minimum pay guarantee and paid sick time.

Asked to comment on Feaster’s remarks, Coalition for Independent Work spokesperson Conor Yunits said, “We have enjoyed a strong working relationship with the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts around our shared goal of protecting drivers’ right to choose independence over employment, and look forward to continuing that relationship as we seek solutions that achieve just that.”

A dozen businesses and organizations signed endorsement forms to become founding members for the group’s launch. When the coalition introduced itself to the world via a March 3 press release, the first quote it touted was from Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts Consultant President/CEO Keith Motley, who said app-based work “has been key for Black and Brown communities” that historically face hiring discrimination.

“Having the flexibility to work when, where and for however long we want, with few barriers to entry, means we are able to build work around our lives, instead of the other way around,” Motley said. “It’s allowed us to supplement our incomes as traditional jobs have disappeared during the pandemic and will be slow to come back. That’s why it’s so vital for communities of color that we protect these earning opportunities while also strengthening them with additional benefits and protections.”

Since then, though, the chapter’s board has sought to put space between it and the coalition’s full-court press in favor of a ballot question and legislation pending on Beacon Hill. During a virtual teach-in that gathering ballot question opponents held last week, Urban League of Eastern Mass. board member Jeffrey Hirsch told attendees that his panel was reassessing the issue.

In California, the Greater Sacramento Urban League was a member of the coalition that backed Proposition 22. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash spent more than $200 million to promote that ultimately successful ballot question, which served as a predecessor to the current push in Massachusetts.

Leaders at the Coalition for Independent Work have been contacting original members to discuss the initiative petition since they formally launched the ballot question campaign on Aug. 3. The coalition says it has contacted the Urban League of Eastern Mass. to schedule a meeting, but has not yet brought the groups together.

Feaster told the News Service that the Urban League of Eastern Mass. continues to stand behind Motley’s statement, but he stressed that his group wants drivers to choose for themselves if they are contractors or employees and does not support a blanket policy declaring their status.

Both the ballot question the gig economy proponents filed and separate legislation they support on Beacon Hill (H 1234) would define app-based drivers as independent contractors by law.

“When this issue came up here, it was the question of: there are many persons who we understand in the gig economy want to be independent contractors, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Feaster said. “Are we saying that all of these people must be categorized as employees? We’re not taking that position one way or the other. It’s up to those individuals what works for them.”

Feaster said his group would have “internal conversations” about its stance on the ballot question. He suggested that the Urban League of Eastern Mass.’s board may ultimately decide not to weigh in other than to serve as a “forum” for debate on the heated issue.

“The Urban League (of Eastern Mass.) may not take any position other than to stand by the statement that we have,” Feaster said. “We stand for jobs and folks decide what works best for them. We’re not going to say that they should be independent contractors, and we may not say that they should be employees.”

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