By NOAM SCHEIBER
It was a potentially sweeping proposal from a Texas regulator: Companies that use a “digital network” to dispatch workers the way Uber does could label them contractors rather than employees.
The proposal, made in December, was a turning point in a campaign that has played out in legislatures and courts in numerous states, and even in Washington, as Uber and other gig-economy companies have risen to prominence in recent years.
Lobbyists involved in this state-by-state effort have worked behind the scenes to provide rule makers with a template. Hanging in the balance could be billions of dollars in costs, and even fundamental business models, as more gig companies move toward public stock offerings.
When such companies are able to classify workers as contractors, they don’t have to contribute to unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation, or heed minimum-wage and overtime laws. Industry officials estimate that a work force of employees costs companies 20 to 30 percent more than a work force of contractors — a sum worth many hundreds of millions of dollars per year to Uber.
Worker advocacy groups say the goal is to chip away at classification rules in enough places to create pressure for a broad exemption nationally.
What is notable about the Texas initiative, which would apply only to unemployment insurance, is that it emerged not from a democratically elected body but from an opaque bureaucracy. There were no hearings where outsiders were questioned, no meaningful floor debates — just a few perfunctory statements at public meetings and a 30-day comment period before the agency could issue a final proposal.
“This whole thing caught us by surprise,” said Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit group in Texas that helps workers fight wage theft and misclassification.
For weeks, the impetus for the rule was unclear. A spokeswoman for the agency, the Texas Workforce Commission, publicly denied that it relied on “outside sources” when drafting proposals.
But that narrative abruptly changed in early March when Mr. Garza’s group obtained a set of emails from the commission through a public records request. The documents suggest an ambitious new phase of the campaign by gig-economy companies to solve their worker-classification problem.
Emails involving one commissioner and her staff show extensive communications with lobbyists working with Tusk Ventures, a venture-capital and political-strategy firm. Tusk,…