Coalition of tech corporations check language for potential Mass. poll query

A coalition that includes tech industry giants Uber and Lyft is road-testing language for a potential Massachusetts ballot question, surveying residents on whether they would support a measure classifying ride-share and delivery drivers as independent contractors while offering them some — but not the full — benefits employees enjoy.

The poll language obtained by the Globe offers a window into how the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work could construct a closely watched ballot initiative for 2022, two years after the companies waged a similar, and expensive, fight in California.

The group — which includes the ride-share giants, DoorDash, Instacart, and others — is facing an Aug. 4 deadline to submit an initial round of signatures with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, the first step toward putting a question on next fall’s ballot.

At issue is how hundreds of thousands of so-called gig economy workers should be treated. As independent contractors, drivers don’t have the right to the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid sick time, unemployment insurance, and other worker protections that employees are entitled to.

Healey last year sued Uber and Lyft, claiming the ride-hailing companies are misclassifying drivers as independent contractors in violation of a state law that establishes them as employees.

The poll, which was being distributed this week via text, asks respondents whether they would support a question that “may appear” on the November 2022 ballot requiring app-based delivery and rideshare companies to provide some broadly defined benefits, including a form of minimum wage, while ensuring they’re classified as independent contractors.

The survey also gauges what types of arguments would work in a high-stakes campaign.

One poll question warns that should the ballot measure fail — and Healey win her lawsuit — the ride-share and delivery companies would “likely limit or eliminate operations” in Massachusetts, rather than be “forced into an entirely different business model just to operate in this one state.”

The poll asks whether such a prospect would convince them to support the ballot question.

A copy of the survey doesn’t explicitly identify the coalition as funding it, but a person with knowledge of the poll confirmed to the Globe that the group is behind it.

While no exact ballot language has been made public, supporters and opponents alike have been gearing up for a potential campaign. Two similarly named but opposing coalitions — each claiming the backing of app-based workers — have staked out sides on the issue, and the Uber-backed group is simultaneously pushing legislation on Beacon Hill that would designate app-based drivers as independent contractors, while creating a so-called portable benefits account for some of them.

Under the proposal, a ride-hailing company would pay a contribution into the account equal to 4 percent of the driver’s earnings from the previous three-month quarter, which the worker could then use toward health care costs, a retirement fund, or to help cover lost income because of an injury, for example.

In a statement, the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work indicated it will continue to push for a bill to be passed to stave off a potentially costly ballot campaign.

The companies’ successful push in California last fall allowing them to continue to treat drivers as independent contractors did not come cheap: The $200 million petition initiative campaign was the most expensive in the state’s history.

“We remain committed to a legislative solution for workers that expands opportunity, strengthens equity, helps the economy, and benefits communities across the Commonwealth, and look forward to working with legislators in the coming months,” the coalition said in a statement.

A group of advocates, labor unions, and others has already formed to fight a potential ballot push, working under the name of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights. The poll, the group says, is evidence of the companies’ plans for the next election cycle in Massachusetts.

“These tactics make clear that Big Tech companies are ready to spend $100 million to buy a new law that strips low-wage workers of their rights,” said Mike Firestone, who served for nearly four years as Healey’s chief of staff and is now heading the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights. “Giant tech companies shouldn’t get a special exemption from laws that apply to every other business in our state.”


Matt Stout can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.

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