In September 2019 the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 5 to protect gig-workers and freelance workers from being exploited by companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Lyft who classify their workers as “independent contractors” so that the they do not have to provide benefits to the workers. All things being equal, “independent contractors” cost employers less than regular full-time employees. To counter the deliberate misclassification of workers as “independent contractors”, AB5 set strict guidelines for what constitutes a worker or an “independent contractor.”
While the passage of this bill may seem like a huge win for the employees of these companies, it had the unintended consequence of making things worse for freelance journalists and many others who work as independent contractors. It affected journalists because AB5 specifies that freelance journalists must be considered employees once they exceeded the limit of 35 submissions per client per year, which many journalists exceed in just weeks. Musicians, theater staff and other workers who routinely do temporary, project-based work have also been affected. Although one reason the bill was created was to help provide people with job security, just months after it was passed many who had steady employment before the bill are now struggling for work.
As Glenn Daigon reported in a January 23, 2020 WhoWhatWhy article, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative, anti-union law firm, filed a lawsuit in response to the “collateral damage” caused by the bill asking the courts to exempt Californian freelance journalists from this law because it limited their flexibility. Critics of AB5 say that it “sets different rules for different speech, in direct violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments” and that “the law drew seemingly arbitrary lines.”
However, labor union activists support the bill, saying that has helped start a conversation about the problem of job misclassification, even if they feel it needs to be improved to better take account of the realities of work in the “creative sector” of the economy. As freelance writer Sascha Cohen explained in a commentary published by In These Times, “It’s one thing to advocate improving the law; AB5 certainly needs tweaking, and jettisoning the arbitrary 35 article cap for writers is a good place to start. But it’s another thing entirely to sidle up to Big Tech, Republican politicians, and firms like PLF, and to defend our work using the capitalist ethos of ‘individualism’.”
On March 20, 2020, a Los Angeles District Court judge dismissed the PLF suit, saying that AB5 regulates the employment relationship, not journalists’ expression. The PFL is considering appealing the ruling.
The Los Angeles Times and the Reuters news agency did report on the Pacific Legal Foundation’s initial filing of the lawsuit. However, none of these corporate news organizations provided the sort of thorough, in-depth coverage of the story contained in the WhoWhatWhy article nor did they explore the political motivations of the PLF lawsuit the way Cohen’s In These Times piece did.
Sascha Cohen, “Freelancers Shouldn’t Betray Other Gig Workers by Allying with Anti-Union Opponents of AB5,” In These Times, March 5, 2020, http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/22349/freelancers-gig-workers-ab5-california-labor.
Glenn Daigon. “Gig Workers’ Rights Fight Ensnares Creative Freelancers.” WhoWhatWhy, January 23, 2020. https://whowhatwhy.org/2020/01/23/gig-workers-rights-fight-ensnares-creative-freelancers/.
Student Researcher: Alyxa Mulligan (Indian River State College)
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)