COVID-19’s economic fallout shows why California must stop its war against freelancers

California Cap

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a massive hit to the U.S. economy, and California is no exception. The March jobs report showed the Golden State is shedding jobs at a furious rate. Yet a California law remains on the books that further frustrates the ability of freelancers to find work.

On January 1, Assembly Bill 5 went into effect, which dramatically changed California’s employment landscape. Under AB5, thousands of Californians can no longer work as independent contractors. The law forces companies, in many cases, to either hire freelancers as employees, incurring substantially higher labor costs as a result, or decide to forego working with them altogether.

Lawmakers thought that forcing employers to hire contractors on as employees, providing them with job benefits and increased stability, would protect them from exploitation. But in practice, countless freelancers now find themselves out of work because many companies can’t afford to hire them as employees.

And the impact is not just on the hiring side; in fact, many freelancers have no desire to become employees. As employees, they lose what likely drew them to freelancing in the first place — the flexibility and freedom to earn a living on their own terms. Many freelancers take pride in their ability to earn a living and provide for their families outside of the traditional workplace. For others, a freelance income allows them to work unconventional hours and supplement their household income while caring for children or aging parents.

While many freelancers are hit hard by AB5, the law takes a particularly tough toll on journalists. Journalism is already a precarious industry as a result of the decline in advertising income and newspaper closures. Now, many journalists rely on the adaptability and control they gain through freelancing to stay afloat and grow their careers. But under AB5, freelance writers and photojournalists must arbitrarily limit their submissions to 35 per publisher per year, and they can’t shoot a single video unless they’re hired as employees. Thanks to AB5, freelancers have watched their job prospects dwindle as they’ve lost the flexibility they need to survive in such a competitive environment.

It’s not just writers and journalists whose livelihoods have been harmed by this disastrous law: translators, artists, drivers, musicians, transcriptionists, performers, cleaning personnel, court reporters, and beyond — the list is virtually endless.

Now facing a severely lagging economy in the wake of the pandemic, the labor market cannot afford to continue to be hamstrung by laws like AB5. Reality shows just how devastating the law is to Californians’ ability to make a living. The belief that AB5 would result in stable employment for contract workers — which was always questionable — looks more and more like fantasy. After all, with job opportunities rapidly drying up, where are freelancers supposed to look for secure employment?

Meanwhile, the situation for freelancers grows more precarious by the day. AB5’s unreasonable restrictions, together with the state’s “stay at home” order, have so hampered their ability to ply their trades as to make a living income a virtual impossibility.

Considering the hardship that AB5 imposes upon freelancers and employers alike, it should come as no surprise that the law has been controversial since its passage. In fact, several lawsuits have been filed challenging AB5’s constitutionality. One of those challenges was brought by two associations made up of writers and photojournalists. Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association have filed a federal lawsuit challenging AB5’s unconstitutional restrictions.

While much remains unknown in the middle of this crisis, we know one thing for certain: AB5 must go. California lawmakers need to get out of the way and allow freelancers to roll up their sleeves and get back to work.

This article was originally published by the Orange County Register.