Joining a heated political fight that could decide pay and benefits for more than 200,000 gig economy workers, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday warned that a proposed Massachusetts ballot question would harm scores of workers beyond the app-based drivers at its center.
Warren gathered with organized labor leaders and the Coalition to Protect Workers' Rights at a rally in Brighton, where she called on the initiative petition's corporate backers to cease their campaign and slammed their effort as an attempt to avoid complying with existing state labor laws.
The question would declare that rideshare and delivery drivers are independent contractors rather than employees and offer some benefits, such as paid sick leave and a minimum pay guarantee.
That change, Warren said, could also expose hotel personnel, grocery employees and retail workers to losing their jobs or existing benefits. She pointed to California's passage of a similar question last year known as Proposition 22, which Uber, Lyft and DoorDash collectively spent more than $200 million supporting.
"Now workers from California have fewer protections and make less money than ever before," Warren said. "It's not just about Uber drivers. This is about so many other essential workers. When Proposition 22 passed, unionized grocery store workers across California were laid off and replaced with app-based workers. Hotel workers lost their jobs. Retail workers lost their jobs."
"That's great for Big Tech, great for big corporations, and a disaster for American workers who are trying to pay the rent and keep food on the table," she continued. "Now these companies want to come over to Massachusetts and run the same play."
In January, California supermarket company Albertsons reportedly laid off its own unionized delivery drivers and replaced the service they provided with third-party drivers.
Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart, four of the largest and most popular app-based rideshare and delivery companies, are together funding the Coalition for Independent Work that is pursuing the ballot question. If backers clear the remaining signature-gathering hurdles, the question would go before voters in November 2022.
The group launched its effort after Attorney General Maura Healey last year sued Uber and Lyft, alleging that their current practice of treating drivers as contractors violates Massachusetts labor laws.
Supporters say the ballot question would make new benefits available to drivers and allow them to retain greater flexibility that contractor status offers, pointing to industry polls showing that many drivers prefer to be able to set their own hours and routines.
"We filed this ballot question because it delivers what the vast majority of drivers like us want and need: to maintain our independence while securing new benefits and protections," Matthew Rose, one of the initiative petition's signers and himself a driver for the companies, said in a statement on Wednesday. "We are confident that Massachusetts voters -- many of whom are our customers and riders -- will stand with drivers who support this question by a margin of 7:1, and we look forward to putting it in front of them next year."
The question would make all drivers subject to a guaranteed "earnings floor" based on their time actively fulfilling trip requests, require companies to pay 26 cents per mile to cover vehicle expenses, and give workers some access to paid and family medical leave, health insurance stipends and paid sick time.
Not all drivers would be able to access the full suite of benefits created under the ballot question. The Coalition for Independent Work estimates about one in five current drivers would qualify for stipends toward health insurance based on the hours they work.
Pam Bennett, a Springfield resident who drives for app-based companies, said in a virtual event hosted by the question's supporters that remaining an independent contractor is "a way of life for me."
"Nobody wants to hire someone with my health issues who has to call out sick once or twice a week," Bennett said. "So the ability to set my own schedule and make my own decisions on when I work is a great, great thing for me, and I don't know any other opportunity that’s going to allow me to do that."
At the rally, Jeena Patel, a recent Boston University graduate, recounted the "hard work" she did in delivery for Instacart and Postmates to help pay for school.
"The worst thing was food delivery. I found out I was actually losing money after I paid for gas," Patel said. "Sometimes, I drove across town an hour or more just to make a few dollars."
Warren told reporters that she is working at the federal level to "stop the misclassification of workers," but in the meantime, she said the first step should be robust enforcement of the Bay State's existing wage and hour laws.
"If there are ways to make this better, to make sure that all of our employees can be covered by workers' compensation when they get hurt, make sure that every one of them gets a minimum wage, then let's work on that," she said. "You don't stride in like a giant who owns the earth and toss aside laws that you don't like just to boost your own profits and step on working people."
With her endorsement, the senator and onetime presidential candidate becomes the highest-profile member of the opposition campaign alongside groups such as the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and ACLU Massachusetts.
"This is a cash grab by Uber and Lyft, and we're not going to take it, like the song," Boston Independent Drivers Guild member Felipe Martinez told the News Service as Wednesday's event wrapped up, referencing Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" that was playing over the loudspeakers.
Organizers held their rally in a parking lot outside the Brighton Stop & Shop, where many employees are union members.
UFCW Local 1445 President Fernando Lemus said Stop & Shop's Peapod drivers perform similar delivery work as drivers on app-based platforms, but do so with "a living wage, retirement and affordable health care benefits."
"During the pandemic, we have been on the front lines, providing essential services to our communities, risking their own lives and their families," Lemus said. "Now these big tech CEOs are trying to take away their rights like they did in California."