‘I don’t like being treated like crap’: gig workers aim to retool a system they say is rigged

Uber, Lyft and other companies fighting Massachusetts lawsuit that would grant workers status as employees

Last modified on Fri 27 Aug 2021 05.01 EDT

Felipe Martinez began working full-time as an Uber driver in the Boston, Massachusetts, area in late 2017. He enjoyed the flexibility, being able to work nights while spending days with his children and focusing on his family, but then Uber began unilaterally implementing changes that he says progressively worsened over time.

“You start thinking they’re just glitches on the app,” said Martinez, 51, who cited changes such as not being given the rides closest to you, and the removal of unlimited destination filters – which give drivers more ability to set their routes. “Little by little, they started changing the unlimited destination filters and saying that people were abusing them.”

Now Martinez and others in Massachusetts are at the forefront of the latest battle between the giants of the gig economy, determined to protect their working practices, and the state and workers who claim the gig economy is rigged against them.

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and a coalition of other gig companies and business groups in Massachusetts are fighting a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts attorney genera,l Maura Healey, who is seeking to classify gig workers as employees under Massachusetts law and end what she calls the companies’ “unfair and exploitative practices”.

The companies filed a ballot proposal earlier this month to preserve their independent contractor business model and are gearing up for a long, expensive fight.

But the workers too are organizing to take on the companies they say expect them to work like employees but refuse to give them the benefits of that status.

Martinez said Uber and Lyft drivers were galvanized by a 2018 pay cut just weeks before Christmas that cut mileage rates for drivers. Martinez helped form the Boston Independent Drivers Guild in response, where he still serves as a board member.

“I love talking to people. I love meeting people. I’m a people person. I’ve loved it. I just don’t like being treated like crap,” he said. “They can’t keep treating drivers and gig workers like this with no accountability for the people who are making them the money. Without drivers, there is no Uber.”

The pandemic exposed how untenable the business model of gig companies is, Martinez argued. When the Covid-19 shutdowns began in March 2020, the CEO of Uber had to lobby the White House to create special unemployment benefits for gig workers.

“It’s the algorithm that’s giving you the jobs. It’s not a manager, it’s a system,” Martinez said. “This is what the people don’t understand. They put these metrics in the system to abuse the drivers.”

Gig companies have been lobbying for laws to codify the classification of their workforce as independent contractors around the US, with Massachusetts the latest battleground as the companies try to push through a bill in the Massachusetts legislature introduced earlier this year. Organized rideshare drivers countered by introducing their own bill to the Massachusetts legislature, a bill of rights for rideshare drivers.

“Without the ballot measure or a legislative solution, the future of app-based rideshare and delivery could be in jeopardy,” said a spokesperson for the gig-company backed Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work in a press release on the ballot proposal. “A pending lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts Attorney General is attempting to force app-based drivers into becoming employees, an outcome that drivers have overwhelmingly rejected.”

The new ballot initiative would determine employment status for more than 200,000 gig workers in Massachusetts. If the proposal is certified by the attorney general, the coalition can begin collecting signatures to be placed on the November 2022 ballot.

Mike Firestone, director of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, a group of workers and labor groups opposing the ballot proposal, has formally accused the coalition of gig companies supporting the ballot amendment of violating campaign finance laws in failing to report expenditures leading up to filing for the ballot – a claim the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work has disputed.

“They have millions of workers all over the country, but somehow no employees. Every day we learn more about the ways in which these companies exert tremendous control over their workers,” said Firestone.

The gig companies’ proposed ballot initiative is similar to Proposition 22 in California, which passed in November 2020 with more than 58% of voters in favor. That ballot exempted gig workers from being classified as employees, but offered some benefits, including a health insurance stipend and minimum pay requirements. Ahead of the ballot vote, Uber and Lyft threatened to shut down apps statewide. On 20 August, a California Superior Court judge ruled Prop 22 was unconstitutional, as legal battles over the ballot amendment continue in California.

Workers and labor groups who publicly opposed Prop 22 have pointed out the impact of the ballot amendment for gig workers in California. Gig companies publicly claimed that classifying their workers as employees would drive up prices for consumers, but both Lyft and Uber raised passenger fares shortly after Prop 22 was passed. Uber also rolled back benefits on the app for drivers that were enabled leading up to Prop 22, including options to reject rides to unwanted destinations, and also cut pay rates.

The coalition of gig companies supporting Prop 22 spent more than $220m campaigning in favor of it, making it the most expensive ballot measure in the history of California.

Gig company executives responded to the ballot’s success by expressing intent to pursue similar laws across the US and in a recent earnings call with investors, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi affirmed support for the Massachusetts ballot initiative.

“Flexibility” has been a focal point on both sides of the Massachusetts ballot campaign, with gig companies claiming that classifying their workers as independent contractors – with some benefits such as a minimum wage pay floor, health insurance stipends and expense reimbursement – is the only way to preserve flexibility for their workforce.

“Under our laws, drivers in Massachusetts can have both flexibility and the rights and benefits of employment status,” attorney general Healey said in a statement responding to a court’s decision to reject a request by Uber and Lyft to dismiss the lawsuit in March 2021.

But for Stephen Levine, a driver for Uber, Lyft and other gig companies in the Boston area since 2015, “flexibility” is a misnomer. He dismissed gig company claims that drivers are independent contractors and cited the restrictions placed on drivers as proof that the company – not the worker – is really in control.

“You’re not a real independent contractor. You have no real control when it comes to doing this type of work,” said Levine. “When there’s a ride request, only the rider sees the information of the ride cost and trip details. The driver doesn’t know anything, just how far away the rider is and how much time it’s going to take to pick up. I don’t know what they paid or what I will make for that ride until I pick you up and see where you’re going, then think to myself, damnit, I wish I didn’t take this trip because I’m not going to make anything on it. I’m going to lose money.”

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