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Question would stop short of declaring gig workers employees

August 3, 2021 GMT

BOSTON (AP) — Some gig workers and a coalition of app-based businesses including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart are pushing a proposed ballot question in Massachusetts they say would grant new benefits for workers while stopping short of declaring them employees.

Supporters said Tuesday that the ballot question would set a minimum earnings guarantee for workers, extend new benefits including health care stipends, paid sick time and paid family and medical leave and occupational accident insurance, and protect drivers from discrimination.

At the same time, the question would maintain the status of the workers as independent contractors instead of employee. Backers of the question say that will continue to give the workers the freedom to work when, where, how often and how long they want.

Supporters say the question would establish an earnings floor equal to 120% of the Massachusetts minimum wage for app-based ride-hailing and delivery drivers. Drivers would continue to keep 100% of their tips. They would also be guaranteed at least $0.26 per mile to cover vehicle upkeep and gas.

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Ride-hailing and delivery network companies would be required to pay health care stipends for drivers who work at least 15 hours per week, including full stipends equal to 100% of the average employer contribution toward a Health Connector plan premium for those who work an average of 25 hours or more per week.

Drivers would also earn paid sick time and paid family and medical leave, and be provided with on the job injury protection.

Critics of the proposed ballot question said the measure would create a “second class” status for drivers, delivery workers, and other app-based workers in Massachusetts.

They described the ballot question as a ploy to avoid paying taxes and paying workers fairly while allowing big tech companies “to buy their way out of the basic obligations of every other business.” Opponents also said the firms backing the question are pushing a false choice that drivers can only maintain scheduling flexibility by surrendering other worker rights.

“Big Tech should follow the same laws as everyone else, pay their taxes, contribute to Social Security, and treat their workers with basic fairness,” Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said in a written statement.

The unveiling of the proposed ballot question comes as Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey is pushing forward with a lawsuit that would recognize Uber and Lyft drivers as employees under the state’s wage and hour laws.

The lawsuit, filed last year in Suffolk Superior Court, challenges the designation of drivers as independent contractors by the ride hailing companies.

Healey said the new designation as employees would give drivers access to what she described as critical labor rights and benefits — including minimum wage, overtime, and earned sick time.

Wednesday is the deadline for groups hoping to get a question on the 2022 ballot to submit the language of the question to Healey’s office. It’s up to Healey to decide if a question passes constitutional muster.

Once a question gets the green light from Healey’s office — typically by the first Wednesday in September — supporters need to file the question with the secretary of the commonwealth’s office and then begin the laborious process of collecting more than 80,000 voter signatures and filing them with local election officials.

The certified signatures must be filed with the secretary of the commonwealth’s office by the first Wednesday in December.

The question is then send to state lawmakers. If the Legislature opts not approve the question, supporters must then collect more than 13,000 additional signatures to guarantee a spot on the November ballot next year.