Poll tests drivers’ opinions on work rules, benefits

Boston Statehouse

Passengers find their rides at the Ride Share point as they exit Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Phoenix. The Phoenix City Council is set to vote on raising fees charged to ride-hailing companies at the airport. If approved Wednesday afternoon, the proposal will increase the current fee from $2.66 per pickup. That would jump to $4 starting Jan. 1 and be applied to drop-offs as well. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

BOSTON (SHNS) – With a major employment classification fight brewing that could determine pay and benefits for hundreds of thousands of app-based drivers, the field’s largest companies and their allies are touting a new poll finding that drivers in Massachusetts largely want to retain the freedom of independent contractors.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, an industry-funded group that launched in March, commissioned a poll asking drivers on four of the most widely used ride-hailing and delivery platforms about their work patterns and employment preferences.

Asked if they would rather be an independent contractor, which is how drivers are currently categorized, or an employee, 64 percent of drivers preferred “independent contractor,” 29 percent chose “employee,” and 7 percent said they were not sure, according to a copy of the poll results shared with the News Service.

Beacon Research conducted the poll, running online surveys between May 14 and May 20 with 446 Massachusetts drivers for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart — the four companies who are funding the coalition and paid for the poll.

Drivers received a personalized link via email to complete the survey, and Beacon said the final data are representative of drivers statewide based on “known and estimated characteristics of region, age, gender, race, and education.” It was not clear if the poll had a margin of error.

Ride-hailing and delivery app companies are facing scrutiny nationwide about how they classify and compensate drivers, with opponents contending that the existing independent contractor system leaves workers underpaid and with insufficient benefits. The companies often argue that many drivers prefer the flexibility they receive as independent contractors.

The Beacon poll found that nearly nine in 10 drivers cite flexibility in the number of hours they work and selecting their own schedules as “major reasons” they drive for the platforms. Sixty-two percent said doing so allows them to earn money while caring for a loved one, and 60 percent said it provides a needed source of income that helps pay for basic needs.

“In fact, if drivers had to have a set schedule, report to a boss, were only able to drive with one platform, and had a flat hourly rate, six-in-ten (57%) drivers say that they would not continue driving with app-based platforms, even if they received other employee benefits,” Beacon Research wrote in its summary of the poll.

Asked which is more important to them as a driver, 70 percent said they prefer being able to maintain schedule flexibility, and 23 percent said receiving traditional employee benefits matters more.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work supports legislation filed by Rep. Mark Cusack and Rep. Carlos Gonzalez that would update state law to keep all app-based drivers as independent contractors. Companies would not be allowed to prescribe hours or times for work nor terminate drivers for declining a specific ride or delivery request.

Their bill (H 1234) would create “portable benefit accounts” for app-based drivers, into which companies would contribute funds that could be transferred toward retirement or paying for health insurance in the individual market.

The Beacon poll told drivers that a proposal before the Legislature would “provide additional benefits to app-based drivers, while also protecting drivers’ independence and access to flexible work. Drivers would remain independent contractors, and therefore not entitled to all the benefits of being an employee, but they would receive more benefits than they do now.”

Eighty-three percent of drivers said they supported the legislation as described, compared to 8 percent who opposed it.

“When you talk to drivers, when you actually speak with those who have been using these platforms to earn, you begin to understand why this flexibility is so important,” Rev. Devon Crawford, a member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, said in a statement the group provided. “Particularly for those who are locked out of the traditional economy because of issues of systemic racism or classicism, driving for one of these app-based platforms has helped to fill gaps and make sure that anyone can access the many opportunities afforded in the Commonwealth.”

Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have become ubiquitous in recent years, providing tens of millions of trips to Bay State travelers every year . Food and grocery delivery companies have grown, too, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when many shoppers opted to stay at home.

Together, they employ hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents who so far have been treated as independent contractors with greater flexibility and fewer benefits than formal employees.

While the exact avenue for action remains unclear, Massachusetts could be primed for a seismic debate in the next year and a half over how the increasingly popular app-based companies should classify workers.

Attorney General Maura Healey sued Uber and Lyft last summer, alleging that they pocket “hundreds of millions” of dollars every year by deeming drivers as independent contractors and not employees who could access minimum wages, paid sick leave and other benefits.

Her case is still ongoing, and Superior Court Justice Kenneth Salinger in April set a timeline for discovery and expert testimony that runs through June 2022.

Former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra had sued the companies based on a state law similar to the Massachusetts version that Healey cited.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash together spent more than $200 million advocating for Proposition 22, a ballot question that effectively rewrote California law in a way that allowed them to keep drivers as contractors while implementing some modest new benefits. The question ultimately passed in November.

Since then, app-based companies have turned their attention to other states. They have urged lawmakers to advance the Cusack and Gonzalez bill here in Massachusetts.

They neither committed to nor ruled out pursuing a ballot question in Massachusetts. Aug. 4 is the deadline to submit an initiative petition with the attorney general’s office in order to have a shot at the 2022 ballot.

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