Massachusetts court rejects Uber- and Lyft-backed effort to keep gig workers independent Massachusetts court rejects Uber and Lyft backed effort to keep gig

Massachusetts court rejects Uber- and Lyft-backed effort to keep gig workers independent

There will be no November ballot initiative in Massachusetts to maintain the independent contractor status of app-based delivery drivers.

In a decision that many observers had expected, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said the initiatives backed by Uber and Lyft had failed to pass the state’s requirement that a ballot initiative “must contain only related or mutually dependent subjects.”

The effort in Massachusetts mimicked the Prop 22 vote in California in November 2020, which aimed to guarantee that delivery drivers such as those with Uber and DoorDash would be considered independent. But that initiative vote was found unconstitutional over issues related to workers’ compensation. That decision is on appeal.

By removing the Massachusetts initiative from the ballot, the high court took away the chance of a showdown between the well-funded Coalition for Independent Work, backed by Uber and Lyft, and union-backed groups with funding a mere fraction of the millions that the coalition was ready to spend.

A spokesman for the coalition issued a statement expressing the organization’s disappointment.

“A clear majority of Massachusetts voters and rideshare and delivery drivers both supported and would have passed this ballot question into law,” the statement said. “That’s exactly why opponents resorted to litigation to subvert the democratic process and deny voters the right to make their own decision. The future of these services and the drivers who earn on them is now in jeopardy, and we hope the legislature will stand with the 80% of drivers who want flexibility and to remain independent contractors while having access to new benefits.”

Conor Yunits, who works for a public affairs agency that was heading the coalition, declined further comment about the next steps the group might take. 

The initiative had two key parts. One was to define app-based drivers as independent contractors. The second involved the liability of the companies that employed the independent contractors in case of an accident or other incident, and that’s where the court had an issue.

“We conclude that the petitions contain at least two substantively distinct policy decisions, one of which is buried in obscure language at the end of the petitions, and thus fail [the state’s] related subjects requirement,” the decision said.

Initiatives in Massachusetts can begin with a petition from a group of the state’s residents. The petitions must be ratified by the state’s attorney general as meeting the Massachusetts requirements. 

Attorney General Maura Healey affirmed the petitions even as she was suing Uber and Lyft over the classification of drivers. 

The portion of the initiative that would have limited the ability of persons hurt by an incident involving an app-based driver is a “substantively distinct policy issue from defining the wage and benefit structure of those drivers,” the court said in its ruling. “Voters may support one and not the other.”

Through the initiative’s wording of what constitutes the legal status of an app-based driver for purposes of litigation, the court said, the effort “move[s] well beyond the consequences of establishing a scheme of wages and benefits for app-based drivers as independent contractors.”

And the language is ‘murky,” the court said, and was buried at the bottom of the other provisions of the proposed initiative. Article 48 of the state’s constitution, which established the requirements for an initiative, mandates that multiple unrelated goals cannot be in the same initiative. 

“Petitions that bury separate policy decisions in obscure language heighten concerns that voters will be confused, misled, and deprived of a meaningful choice,” the court said.

“When even lawyers and judges cannot be sure of the meaning of the contested provisions, it would be unfaithful to article 48’s design to allow the petition to be presented to the voters, with all the attendant risks that voters will be confused and misled,” the court said in handing down its decision.

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