App-based employees, such as drivers with Uber and Lyft, have been on the front line, providing essential services to their communities during the pandemic. Yet their access to crucial employment protections and benefits depends on whether they are classified as employees or independent contractors.
The passage of the Massachusetts House bill (H.4375/H.4376) “An Act Establishing Portable Benefit Accounts for App-Based Drivers” would, if passed, classify app-based drivers and delivery workers operating in the commonwealth as independent contractors rather than employees for all purposes under Massachusetts law. This move would undermine the progress made in the fight for a living wage and the benefits and protections that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents fought hard, for decades, to win and maintain.
What do drivers have to lose in being considered independent contractors? Only minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, the protection of anti-harassment and discrimination laws, the right to form a union and collectively bargain and retirement benefits, to name a few. In fact, research conducted by the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center found that after considering multiple loopholes in the bill, the majority of Massachusetts drivers could earn as little as the equivalent of a $4.82 wage, while the minority of drivers who qualify for a health care stipend could earn the equivalent of just $6.74 per hour.
The pay guarantee under the proposition is therefore well below the Massachusetts minimum wage and about one-third of the required minimum pay for drivers under industry-specific pay standards in New York City and Seattle. The benefits this new law does include pale in comparison to the benefits guaranteed under the law to employees and serve as nothing more than a clever means of misdirection as it would conveniently remove the possibility of app-based drivers being classified as employees despite a recent victory for Lyft drivers in district court just last year.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Kedoshim, we are first introduced to “labor law” as a way of ensuring economic justice in pursuit of creating an ethical society. Leviticus 19:13 commands the Israelites “do not oppress your neighbor or steal; do not withhold the workers’ wage with you until morning.” In the ancient Near East, most laborers were typically paid at the end of each day. Therefore, withholding the wages overnight was likened to stealing, and the Torah clearly forbids employers from doing this. From mandating that workers are paid before the end of the day to giving workers the right to eat the produce of the field while working, our Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of ethical labor standards.
The central narrative of the Jewish people involves our liberation from slavery, perhaps the worst imaginable work environment. Unsurprisingly, Jewish law went on to create labor laws designed to create a balanced relationship between employers and employees. For example, under Jewish law, employers are forbidden from delaying payment to workers. The Talmud—calling attention to the extent to which low-wage workers are dependent on their earnings—comments: “He who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life.” In modern times, more than ever, this is no exaggeration.
Our Jewish values tell us that work should be a means of granting dignity to the worker and that workers should be treated with dignity and respect. As such, app-based drivers deserve nothing less than a robust and comprehensive set of employment protections and benefits. “An Act Establishing Portable Benefit Accounts for App-Based Drivers” not only fails to provide that, but also strips away important rights in the process. For these reasons, JALSA does not support H.1234 and urges you to do the same.
If you want more information about this issue or want to work with JALSA on putting our Jewish values into action, contact JALSA legislative director David Albright at email@example.com or 617-227-3000.
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