Culture Watch – AB5 is Killing Freelance Writers –

As this year draws to a close, I’m not going to review anything but instead, write a personal editorial.

Do you believe that good intentions can create very bad law? Well, let me tell you a little about AB5, the union-backed law sponsored by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and signed by Governor Newsom, that is going to destroy the livelihoods of many categories of small business, independent contractors across this state. It goes into effect on January 1st, 2020 and it already has had damaging effects.

I can’t address all of the affected categories, but especially hard hit are freelance writers, a category that I (and other SMDP columnists) fall under. Hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs have already been lost because the AB5 restrictions placed on media organizations are both cumbersome and onerous – instead of hiring people as employees, companies are turning their backs on California freelancers altogether to avoid the consequences and exorbitant fines that will be charged for violations.

The bill unfairly targets news writers by capping their ability to contribute no more than 35 submissions a year to a single publication. Somehow graphic designers and marketing writers have been exempted. Why are journalists being targeted?

What was the intent? To protect Uber, Lyft and Doordash drivers from exploitation by turning them into employees. And to force newspapers to convert freelancers into employees. Strong-arming the news media will not result in more hires. In fact, it’s having quite the opposite effect.

5,000 media jobs are estimated to have disappeared between 2014-2017. And this year alone, 7,800 news jobs were lost. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

More to the point, this bill is premised on a very old media model. We live in a digital, not print world and the kinds of writing jobs that are out there now look nothing like the storied newsrooms of “The Front Page,” or “All the President’s Men.” More than 1000 magazines have folded, and newspapers are being taken over by investment groups, then shut down (witness OC Weekly most recently).

But digital writers are equally affected. Last week VOX Media announced that 200 freelancers would be let go, with only 20 full and part-time employee positions added. California SEO contract writers are being excluded from new job hires, and independent writers are receiving daily emails and letters from companies they have contracted with for years stating that due to this law, freelancers based in California will no longer be eligible for work with them.

I’ve spent more than 40 years of my life in one union or another, so please don’t accuse me of being anti-labor. I’m really grateful for the benefits my union fought to give me and my fellow workers. And I believe that labor has protected jobs and helped build the middle class.

But this overreaching labor-backed bill was originally meant to clarify a California Supreme Court decision in the case of a delivery company, Dynamex, which had re-classified employees as independent contractors, making them ineligible for all the wage and benefits protections that employment granted them. The Court’s decision reversed that move.

However, AB5 is so wide-ranging that it’s hard to get a handle on everything that’s wrong with it. California medical transcribers are no longer being hired by companies to do work. Travel industry writers have been axed by a major media company that serves this segment. Translators are being affected. This list goes on and on.

What’s particularly odd are the political alliances that are growing out of the dispute. Seeing Democrats take an automatic stance in favor of labor, many Democratic Party aligned writers are turning to the GOP side of the aisle to seek help in overturning the seemingly arbitrary and confusing restrictions and exemptions within this law.

And when the author of the bill tweets that say no freelancer ever wants to be one, and that freelance jobs are bad jobs, you have to question all that she doesn’t understand about the the multitude of independent professions.

Most of the independent contractors I know—and whom I’ve met in a recently-formed Facebook group (California Freelance Writers United) that’s organizing to preserve freelance jobs—have deliberately chosen to be freelancers because of the freedom to set their own working hours and terms. Some make an excellent living, some make very little but they all share the desire to be in business for themselves. And plenty of Uber/Lyft/Doordash and other gig economy workers don’t want to become employees for these very same reasons.

There have been numerous articles and editorials calling this law into question (here’s a recent one from the Los Angeles Times https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-12-17/freelance-journalist-ab5-lawsuit) and I am hoping that following meetings with our legislators, the Governor’s office and the bill’s author, serious action will be taken to amend the parts of this law that are simply untenable.

I’d like to be able to continue writing my column on a weekly basis, not 3 times a month. So let’s start with the simplest ask of all: eliminate the cap of 35 submissions. We can argue the rest after that.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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