California’s Assembly Bill 5 will need revision if state lawmakers truly hope to improve the lives of independent contractors

Supporters of the rideshare industry gathered in Sacramento last month to advocate for a ballot measure that would seriously revise parts of California Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), a contentious bill that seeks to reclassify what it means to be an independent contractor in California. Representatives from Uber, Lyft and DoorDash made the journey out to the state capital to show their support for the campaign due in large part to the fear that the bill will hurt the companies they work for — but they aren’t the only ones worried about the bill. Independent contractors from all across the state are calling AB 5 short sighted and dangerous, suggesting that, while the bill seems to mean well, the language of the legislature is going to require further revision if it is to serve as the next step in the process of securing stronger labor rights. 

AB 5, known by many as the “gig worker bill,” was signed into law on Sept. 18 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and the fervent opposition to it seen in the capital last month should come as no surprise. The bill is ambitious to say the least, as it was written with the express intent of radically restructuring the way independent contractors are classified and hired in the state of California. 

The metric for deciding whether or not one is indeed an independent contractor, the ABC test, looks at three criteria. In order for the worker in question to be considered an independent contractor, said worker must be, first and foremost, free of control from the hiring entity they are currently working with. Compounding that, the worker must perform work that is not part of what the hiring entity typically performs. Finally, the worker must take part in some “independently established trade” that is similar to the work they are performing for the hiring entity. 

Workers who do not meet each of these criteria are ineligible for independent contractor status and the companies they work for are obliged to offer full-time employment. Rideshare companies in particular fear the implementation of the ABC test, as it would effectively force them to hire the gig workers who drive for a living as full-time employees — a huge expense for rideshare companies that have been hemorrhaging money in recent years.  

A handful of professions including doctors, builders and lawyers are exempt from this rigorous ABC testing, but many are not. Freelance journalists are in a particularly uncomfortable position in that the language of the bill allows them to maintain their independent contractor status up until the 35th article they submit to an employer over the course of a year. With the way the bill is written, it is assumed that the publication would hire the freelancer after they reach that arbitrary 36th article. 

Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works in the field of journalism. These publications already have staff writers employed, and few actually rely on outside contributors. This will leave freelancers to jump between publications to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. In short, AB 5 certainly seems to mean well in its efforts to establish a route toward employment for gig workers, but it comes off as shortsighted when applied to independent contracting as a whole. 

Due to the complex nature of the bill, it is impossible to either commend or condemn it wholesale. Context will always be important in situations like these. In terms of rideshare companies, it will be difficult to argue that they deserve any sort of exemption. To be sure, these companies have every reason to combat the bill. As mentioned before, companies such as Uber and Lyft are already financially unstable, and an obligation to pay their workers more will surely crumble that unstable footing.

That being said, the fact that the rideshare companies have been allowed to get this far by dodging state and federal labor laws is unfair to the workers who provide the rideshare services. Drivers are absolutely integral to the rideshare business model, and the companies should be paying them and providing the benefits that such work warrants. If the drivers put in the work, it is offensive to not pay them as though they were full time. These companies must be forced to rethink their business models if they want to survive. 

That being said, it would be foolish to suggest that every other independent occupation is in the same boat as the rideshare workers. Freelance journalists and other overlooked groups will surely suffer collateral damage due to the bill and they must not be forgotten. Thousands of people will be unable to make ends meet if action isn’t taken soon. In fact, some publications have already stated they will be cutting ties with California freelancers when this bill becomes law because of the complications it will surely bring. They’re able to do without freelancers, and so they will.

Journalists are not the only independent contractors who will be harmed by the bill. Truckers, contracted cleaners and independent software engineers are all at risk of being classified as freelancers and thus required to work full time, which will seriously harm their respective industries. The window of opportunity to revise this bill is closing quickly. AB 5 will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and if nothing changes, California gig workers may be waiting at least another year until new legislation can be passed and put into motion. 

Because the bill has already been signed into law, the most Californians can do is advocate for revisions before the Jan. 1 deadline. The bill was amended to exempt certain professions last May, so it is in the best interest of neglected groups to continue pushing for revisions. 

The situation would be helped immensely if greater specificity was included in the language of the legislation. For instance, perhaps freelance journalists would be happier if the article cap was higher than 35 pieces a year. Each profession would need different allowances, and the only way to make sure the bill isn’t harming anyone unduly is to maintain an open dialogue between workers and lawmakers. While the rideshare companies themselves might not deserve exemptions, others should follow the example their campaign has set and insist that elected officials hear their voices. 

The livelihoods of independent contractors are on the line. Good intentions can only get one so far, and the changes AB 5 will soon introduce may just send unintended shockwaves throughout the golden state. Change must be made. With some revision, the bill may just be the piece of legislation worker’s rights activists are looking for. Until that revision comes, however, the bill is destined to go down in history as shortsighted and ultimately harmful toward the workers the legislators claim they wish to protect. 

 

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