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Mass. court strikes down attempt to define delivery drivers as contractors

The ruling is a blow to DoorDash and Uber Eats, which were pushing a measure that would have classified their drivers as contractors rather than employees.
Delivery company stickers
Photograph: Shutterstock

Massachusetts’ highest court this week struck down an attempt by companies like DoorDash and Uber to classify their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The decision is a blow to the companies’ ongoing efforts to protect their business models, which rely on independent contractors to transport people, food and other things in their own vehicles.

The state’s Supreme Judicial Court on Monday ruled that two nearly identical ballot measures backed by the companies included multiple unrelated subjects, violating the state’s constitution. 

The petitions filed last year would have asked voters to decide whether ride-share and delivery drivers in Massachusetts should be classified as independent contractors rather than employees. The measures included guidelines around wages, paid sick leave and other protections for drivers.

They were in response to a lawsuit filed in 2020 by Attorney General Maura Healey, which argued that gig drivers are in fact employees under Massachusetts law and therefore entitled to more protections, like minimum wage and overtime. 

DoorDash, Uber, Postmates, Lyft and Instacart donated $17 million in support of the measures. (The bulk of that—more than $14 million—came from Lyft, according to Ballotpedia.) The companies argued that the measures would ensure drivers’ flexibility to work when they want to while also giving them new benefits. 

Opponents, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said the companies were trying to skirt their responsibilities as employers by not offering workers the wages or benefits they are legally owed.

The petitions had been previously cleared to go before voters in November, but were challenged in a lawsuit and then shot down in a unanimous decision Monday by the court.

The judges took issue with a “vaguely worded” provision near the end of the petitions that would have limited the companies’ liability in accidents involving their drivers. This provision, the court ruled, was unrelated to the issue of drivers’ employment status, and therefore in violation of the state’s constitution, which mandates that ballot measures must “contain only subjects . . . which are related or which are mutually dependent.”

Yes for Massachusetts Drivers, a group supporting the ballot measures, wrote in a tweet that “a clear majority” of voters and drivers would have passed the petitions in November and accused the opponents of attempting to “subvert the democratic process.”

“The future of these services and the drivers who earn on them is now in jeopardy, and we hope the legislature will stand with the 80% of drivers who want flexibility and to remain independent contractors while having access to new benefits,” it said.

Massachusetts Is Not for Sale, an opposing group, applauded the decision.

“The ballot question was written not only as an attempt to reduce the rights of drivers but also would have put the rights of passengers and the public at risk,” said Campaign Director Wes McEnany in a statement. “The ballot question would have allowed these companies to avoid their most basic responsibilities to provide safe and reliable transportation service.”

In 2020, delivery and ride-share companies prevailed with a similar measure in California called Proposition 22. Voters approved that initiative by a margin of 59% to 41%.

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