Mass. voters to weigh in on gig economy and labor laws in 2022 ballot questions

Irina Baranova

This upcoming election season, voters are going to be asked to select a new governor for the Commonwealth — and the state’s current Governor Charlie Baker will not be on the ballot. But that’s not the only critical decision that will be before them. GBH News State House reporter Mike Deehan joined host Aaron Schachter on Morning Edition today to discuss three ballot questions that voters will face in 2022. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Aaron Schachter: In order to get a question on the ballot, the state requires 80,000 qualified signatures from people saying they support putting the question before voters. Tell us, Mike, which campaigns made the cut this year.

Mike Deehan: There are only three that made that cut-off to get enough signatures to go to the next phase of this ballot process. The one you’re likely to hear the most about is about independent contractors for the gig economy, things like Uber and Lyft drivers. Question two: Let more supermarkets and convenience stores sell alcohol, which is a perennial issue that comes up in these ballot situations. And another one: To force dental insurers to spend more of their profits on care and providers, which is a little more in the weeds.

Schachter: There was a ballot measure in California, which I think was quite contentious and quite expensive, over independent contractors. Is that similar to what’s happening here in Massachusetts?

Deehan: Yeah, it’s essentially the same fight. You have these big gig economy [companies], Uber and Lyft being the biggest ones — they built a workforce using independent contractors in a way that never really existed before. The question that is potentially going to go for voters — it’s an attempt from these big gig economy companies to get an exemption to the state’s existing labor laws.

The companies and many of their drivers that work for them, they don’t want the drivers to be considered employees — they work for them as independent contractors, but under current law, they don’t want to be considered employees, because then they would have all of the benefits and regulations that come with that, e.g. health insurance.

So you can see why it’d be very expensive for the Ubers and the Lyfts of the world to have hundreds or millions of employees on the books all of a sudden, that could potentially threaten the way they do business, the entire model that they have set up. The drivers, when you talk to them, they say that they like the flexibility of being able to drop in and out and they don’t want to be full-time employees.

The way it is right now is very likely, or at least considered, a violation of state labor laws. The attorney general, Maura Healey, is actually suing both Uber and Lyft right now for violating the laws the way they do business. So this question is an attempt to say, “hey, voters, can you excuse us from the labor laws that you have, so that we can maintain the business the way that we want to do it?”

“The way it is right now is very likely, or at least considered, a violation of state labor laws.”

-Mike Deehan, GBH State House Reporter

You’ll be hearing a ton about this, because these companies are so rich. Also, on the other side, organized labor is the one who’s going to be fighting up against this — they are likely to have ads as well, funneling lots of money to defend the drivers, from their point of view, that they should be under the current labor laws — they should be getting the same wages and benefits everyone else does.

It should be said that the companies are offering what they’re calling a compromise — it’s some benefits, but not nearly as much as what the law right now would ask for. So it’s going to be up to voters to decide to exempt them.

Schachter: And also interesting to point out that a few petitions mounted by the socially conservative wing of the Mass. Republican Party failed to attract enough signatures. Is that a party problem or a process problem?

Deehan: It’s an organizational problem. It wasn’t just those conservative social issues that didn’t get those 80,000 signatures. There were questions about abortion, voter ID, teaching racial history in schools — that are hot button issues, that failed to make it — but also, things that poll really well that are ostensibly popular, like bringing back happy hour to the Commonwealth. Every poll the last few years has said that that is really popular with voters. However, they couldn’t get organized enough to get the 80,000 signatures.

It’s still a pandemic, it’s still very hard to get these things organized. And what we’re seeing from groups like the Uber and Lyft side of things, you can pay professional signature gatherers. So it costs a lot, or it takes a lot of hardcore organizing in order to get these things through.

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