Opinion—Uber and Lyft should be made to pay their fair share

“You vote in MA?  Then sign this ballot petition!”

We’ve all been stopped outside the grocery store to sign petitions to get issues on the 2024 ballot. And we’ve been told that they all do good things for ordinary people. Be careful, though, because these claims are not all true. This year, voters are faced with a set of corporate-backed proposals that claim to support gig workers, but which would actually strip workers of a host of labor and employment rights, create a permanent second class of workers, and let big companies like Uber and Lyft off the hook from following the laws that govern our state. 

Faced with a request to support gig workers’ rights, many of us are inclined to sign on immediately. But with nine separate initiatives (“Initiative Petition for a Law Establishing that App-Based Drivers are not Employees,” Versions A through I), each of these proposed laws would do just the opposite: They take away workers’ rights and absolve app-based companies from their basic responsibilities as employers. The companies claim that these new policies will protect workplace flexibility, or even allow workers to unionize – but these workers already have flexibility and the legal right to unionize. 

When you take an Uber or Lyft, or order Doordash or Instacart, you pay the company through an app. The company then pays an individual driver after taking a cut. (Just how much profit the company keeps is a mystery never disclosed to consumers or drivers).

These companies would like us to believe that each of their drivers is working completely independently, as though there is no central company updating the app, assigning work, setting rules drivers must follow, and reaping profits from drivers’ time and labor. Essentially, the companies want it both ways: they want to collect their cut of every single ride or delivery, but they don’t want to follow the same rules we expect every other employer to follow – from paying minimum wage to contributing to our state’s unemployment fund to abiding by non-discrimination and safety laws. And once again this year, they are asking voters to support their money grab.

Though it might appear that these laws are actually guaranteeing rights that workers do not currently have – including a wage floor, access to insurance for some workers, paid sick leave, and mileage payments in several of the nine separate initiatives – these petitions would in fact reduce the rights of these workers.

According to Massachusetts labor law, there is nothing in the contracts or working conditions of gig drivers to exclude them from the protections that all employees currently receive. These laws would force workers to settle for second-rate status, including a mileage rate that is less than half the current IRS rate, and a wage floor that is based not on total hours worked but rather on a calculation of “engaged” hours. 

These laws, if passed, present a broader danger to workers and taxpayers in the Commonwealth. They would set a dangerous precedent wherein a company could essentially buy its way out of employment law by launching a public campaign for a carveout. The structure of our employment law is based on the presumption that most workers are employees, with all the legal protections and benefits that follow from that status. These ballot initiatives would chip away at that presumption and put an already vulnerable group of workers into permanent precarity.

And once these loopholes are established, other companies looking to save money will surely follow suit by attempting to slot their own employees into this new category. 

If companies like Uber and Lyft are allowed to carve themselves out as employers, they also reduce their responsibility to the Commonwealth by reducing their tax burden and their investment in social programs like unemployment insurance, Paid Family Medical Leave, and Social Security. Just as voters passed the Fair Share Act for individuals in 2022, we need to make sure we don’t let these companies off the hook for paying their fair share. 

Elizabeth Pellerito is the director of the Labor Education Program at UMass Lowell; Jasmine Kerrissey is director of the Labor Center at UMass Amherst, Steve Striffler is director of the Labor Resource Center at UMass Boston, and Camilo Viveiros, Jr. is acting director of the Arnold M. Dubin Labor Education Center at UMass Dartmouth.

Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter