By Kerry Jackson
With Assembly Bill 5, lawmakers not only came up with a solution for which there is no problem, they created hardships where there were none before.
The bill was peddled as means to establish fairness for California freelance and independent contractors. No longer will they be “exploited” by businesses. The law now forces companies to hire them as employees rather than allowing them to continue their existing labor relationships, which were arrived at freely and voluntarily by all parties.
In contrast to the image constructed by its supporters, AB5 is a job killer already robbing workers of their freedom. The Hoover Institution’s Lee Ohanian named it the worst California law of 2019. But a case could be made it’s the downright cruelest California law of the last 20 years.
The wreckage began to pile up even before the bill became law on Jan. 1.
Some of the heaviest bloodshed has been at Vox, which fired more than 200 California freelance writers. While 10% will reportedly be hired for part-time and full-time work, that still leaves more than 180 freelancers without their paying gigs.
Only a few months earlier, Vox was delighted by the passage of AB5. On Sept. 11, a headline gushed that “Gig workers’ win in California is a victory for workers everywhere.” The reporter called it “a historic moment for the U.S. labor movement,” and finished her ode to unions by declaring that “now that California has its win, it may only be a matter of time until workers across the country have theirs too.”
Most of the writers losing their jobs worked for SB Nation, a sports blogging network owned by Vox Media, based across the country in New York. Rebecca Lawson, editor in chief of Mavs Moneyball, an SB Nation property, explained to readers in a farewell note that “California’s terrible AB5 came for me today, and I’m devastated.”
“SB Nation has chosen to do the easiest thing they can to comply with California law — not work with California-based independent contractors, or any contractors elsewhere writing for California-based teams.”
Lawson is employed full-time elsewhere and won’t be financially devastated by losing her sports writing gig. But she knows of “literally hundreds of amazing colleagues all across our network who do rely on this money to help” and will “have to replace that income somewhere else, somehow.” And most of them will likely be women. Female freelance writers will “bear the brunt of the government-imposed limit,” says the Foundation for Economic Education, as “two-thirds of U.S. freelancers across industries are female.”
Many who lost their jobs are justifiably infuriated that lawmakers, who believe they know better than workers themselves what’s right for them, have effectively robbed them of their income.
“Your response to the fallout from this legislation is among the cruelest I’ve ever seen from an elected official,” one freelancer tweeted to Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, AB5’s chief architect.
Another writer asked Sacramento to “please take note of how this destructive #AB5 legislation is affecting California workers,” while a San Diego freelancer is “wondering if I’m going to lose 30% of my income (or more) with the snap of California’s fingers on January 1st” because the “state of California is dismantling much of what I’ve worked for with #AB5.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation is challenging AB5 in court on behalf of freelancers. But even if the freelancers win, they’ve still lost. First, there’s no guarantee the challenge will succeed. Second, having no recourse but to set in motion, and then endure, an uphill legal grind is its own punishment.
Lawmakers and bill supporters have acted surprised all isn’t rosy with the outcome. Gonzalez Fletcher even “offered a meek apology” for the trouble it’s already caused, says the Daily Wire, though she also posted on Twitter a “defense of her much-maligned bill,” which included the insulting claim that the now-lost freelance gigs “were never good jobs.”
But the assemblywoman and the others were surely aware of exactly what would happen under the law.
“A lot of folks are now describing freelancer firings as an ‘unintended consequence’ of AB5,” says Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown. “But this facet of the bill was well-known and discussed beforehand.
“It’s not an ‘unintended consequence’ so much as one that folks who wanted to stick it to Uber and Lyft (or at least get press for pretending to stick it to Uber and Lyft) deemed an acceptable consequence.”
And at the same time, those same folks gave the unions itching to sign up more dues-paying members a Christmas present they won’t forget.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.