Massachusetts Court Objects to Gig Worker Ballot Measure

A proposed Massachusetts ballot initiative designating gig drivers as independent contractors was nixed by a state court that deemed it an attempt to avoid liability by companies like Uber and Lyft in the event of accident or crime. The Tuesday ruling effectively halted a $17.8 million campaign in support of a bill the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said violates the State Constitution, with hidden language excepting drivers from being “an employee or agent” of a gig company. The move is the latest in a series of skirmishes between gig companies and local governments. 

The Massachusetts court objected to what it said was an attempt at subterfuge. The seven-judge panel wrote that while most of the proposal dealt with benefits drivers would receive or be denied as independent contractors, “buried in obscure language” was a clause stipulating drivers were “not an employee or agent” of a gig company. The Massachusetts State Constitution “requires all parts of a ballot measure to be related,” according to The New York Times.

“The proposals improperly contained ‘at least two substantively distinct policy decisions,’ Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote in the court’s 31-page ruling, ‘one of which is buried in obscure language at the end of the petitions,’” wrote Politico, adding “these included the liability language, as well as another provision regarding ‘contract-based and voluntary relationship between app-based drivers and network companies.’”

Kafker opined that state Attorney General Maura Healey erroneously certified the ballot petitions.

Describing Massachusetts as “a staunchly pro-labor and pro-union state,” NYT quoted Terri Gerstein of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program as saying gig companies shouldn’t expect a cakewalk as they attempt to advance legislation favorable to corporate interests. That offensive is playing out on a state-by-state basis in lieu of the federal government’s failure to establish national law.

“Policymakers should pay attention to the reality that gig companies’ march toward a future with degraded worker protections is not inevitable,” Gerstein said.

Ballot battles have raged for year as to whether to classify app-based drivers as employees, with benefits and labor protections, or as independent contractors, “responsible for their own expenses and, as companies have contended, afforded greater freedom and flexibility to work the hours they want,” NYT said.

In 2020, companies including Uber and Lyft got California voters to pass Proposition 22, which designated drivers independent contractors, later overturned in state court. The following year, the companies attempted a labor bargain in New York, “and this year they forged a similar agreement with legislators in Washington State, preventing drivers from being classified as employees,” per NYT.

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