BOSTON — Massachusetts could become the next battleground over the issue of whether drivers for ride-hailing services are treated as regular employees.

Following a ballot fight in California, companies such as Uber and Lyft are gearing up to push new rules in Massachusetts allowing "gig economy" companies to continue treating drivers as independent contractors.

While there are no proposals yet, the companies are mulling ways to bring rules to Massachusetts mirroring those California voters just passed, either by convincing the Baker administration to adopt new rules, seeking a legislative fix or putting the question to voters on the 2022 ballot.

The California law passed earlier this month, Proposition 22, keeps drivers classified as independent contractors able to set their own hours. That also means they don't see the benefits and protections of regular employees, such as minimum wage, overtime and health insurance coverage.

Ride-hailing and delivery services spent more than $200 million to sway voters, making it most expensive referendum in California history.

Uber spokesman Josh Gold said the company hopes to avoid a ballot fight in Massachusetts by reaching an agreement with state leaders on "a solution that gives drivers new benefits and protections while protecting flexibility."

A spokeswoman for DoorDash, a delivery service that supported Prop 22, said the measure passed in California "because it's what Dashers and other drivers want."

"We’re committed to working with legislators across the country and leading the way on policies that protect Dasher flexibility and extend portable and proportional benefits," spokeswoman Campbell Matthews said. "We're confident that Massachusetts policymakers will prioritize the voices of drivers and find a third-way that protects independence and extends benefits."

In July, Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court asking a judge to recognize Uber and Lyft drivers as employees under the state’s wage and hour laws. The designation, if approved by a court, would give drivers access to minimum wage benefits, overtime pay and earned sick leave.

"Uber and Lyft have built their billion-dollar businesses while denying their drivers basic employee protections and benefits for years," Healey said in a statement. "This business model is unfair and exploitative."

Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies contend that their drivers prefer the flexibility of being independent contractors. While they don't get the benefits of regular employees, they have more control over their schedules.

Designating the drivers as employees, the companies say, could threaten jobs at a time of high unemployment due to the pandemic.

Of course, requiring the companies to pay minimum wage, overtime and health benefits would also cut into their profits.

Some groups are already pushing for changes to state law to forgo the need for an expensive ballot fight.

Bob Garguilo, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving New England, wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker last week asking the administration to set requirements for drivers in Massachusetts. He said the state needs to continue supporting an industry that has vastly reduced the risks of drunk driving.

"It shouldn't come to a ballot question for the leaders in Massachusetts to listen to the will of the people, support our workers, and act to keep our roads safe," he wrote.

Massachusetts has seen the number of ride-hailing trips soar from 64.8 million in 2017 to 91.1 million in 2019, according to state data. There are more than 200,000 approved ride-hailing drivers in the state.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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