Many people love to hate the gig economy. It comes with instability and scheduling stress, and the burden of earning is entirely on the worker. This is the problem California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez was trying to fix when she drafted Assembly Bill 5, a law that puts this burden back on employers.
But this law also essentially puts freelance writers out of business in California. And if the California writing economy is anything like the one in New York, a bunch of these freelance writers are moms who have good reasons for gigging.
The law that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020, was formulated to protect workers such as Uber drivers, who often work long, underpaid hours, trying to hit the sweet spot of high pricing and multiple fares. While the bill takes a stand for those who should rightfully be classed as employees, it also determines that a freelance journalist is only able to give 35 “submissions” of articles or columns to any single outlet per year.
That’s an incredibly small number. To put that in perspective, I wrote 29 columns in September, for five outlets, and if this law were in effect, I would be quickly cut off or close to being cut off at the outlets I write for the most. Many serious freelancers have similar output.
Atop that, no one gave serious thought to this number of 35 submissions. In fact, the bill sponsor literally said her use of government power to limit people’s opportunities was “arbitrary.” As reported by the Hollywood Reporter, “Gonzalez says that she and her team decided that a weekly columnist sounded like a part-time worker and so halved that worker’s yearly submissions. After protest from some freelancers, the number was bumped up to 35. ‘Was it a little arbitrary? Yeah. Writing bills with numbers like that are a little bit arbitrary,’ she says.”
What’s not arbitrary is my rent, the cost of groceries, and how much interesting stuff I can find to write about.
Freelance Writing Is Unlike Other Contractor Jobs
New outlets are not suddenly going to switch to hiring their freelancers. Most don’t have the resources. That’s why they use freelancers in the first place. No matter what Gonzalez thinks, new outlets are not the Uber of publications. Newsrooms are shutting down all over the place.
Additionally, the outlets are going to end up needing new writers whenever one of their favorites hits the 35 mark, which equates to about three columns a month, meaning outlets will face an influx of worse writers. The content will suffer, the writers will suffer, the outlets will suffer, and no one will be happy.
There have definitely been abuses in contracting. Contractors are people who set their own schedules, use their own equipment, and file taxes as self-employed. Taxes are not withheld, FICA is not taken out, and if a contractor ends up out of work, she doesn’t get the option of filing for unemployment insurance. Workers in the gig economy don’t have many of the government-provided benefits employees do — no benefits, sick time, paid vacation, maternity leave, lunch breaks, or expense reimbursements.
Gonzalez wants these workers to have protections, but writing is not a hard labor job. Half the time, I do my job on my phone, sitting at the edge of a playground, eating a soft serve from the Mr. Softee truck while my son plays on the swings. In addition, no matter what benefits come from working late at the office, they wouldn’t adequately compensate me for my not being able to mother my son.
The New Law Will Cripple Press Freedoms
Writer Yashar Ali’s take is that AB 5 is an assault on freedom of the press because it denies news outlets the freedom to publish what they choose by limiting who they are legally allowed to publish.
Gonzalez lashed out in a now-deleted retweet wherein Ali was insulted as “a selfish piece of sh-t.”
Vox defended the bill, saying it is carving out a protection for writers while putting into law a California Supreme Court ruling from 2018. Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court defined a contractor as a “worker [who] a) is free from the company’s control, b) is doing work that isn’t central to the company’s business, and c) has an independent business in that industry.”
Journalists writing for news outlets are certainly central to an outlet’s business. So yes, by the Dynamex standards, writers would fail that test. But it seems to be a stupid test — if a person’s work were not central to the company’s business, why would the company need them? Only expendable, easily replaceable people get to gig?
Freelance Writing Has Helped Me Be a Mom
A freelance writer works on her own time, in her own space, often in her own pajamas. One subset of the workforce that seriously values this kind of flexibility is mothers. Assembly Bill 5 will substantially disrupt their ability to both earn a living and successfully mother.
If something like this were to pass in New York, where I live, my entire work-life balance would be upended. I take my son to school in the morning, work until school pick-up, and then spend the rest of the day steeped in homework, park trips, and making dinner — mom stuff. After he’s in bed, I get back to work.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to have a normal job with a normal schedule. My son would go off to school, and I would go off to work. Frequently, he was in after-school care, and would get picked up by a parent in the early evening. Homework and the rest of the mom stuff would be crammed into those fleeting few hours between school pick-up and bedtime. We would both be harried, sometimes leaving some homework for morning, which added stress to the already frustrating get-out-the-door rush.
I didn’t fully intend to make this switch, but that regular job is no more, life has taken some twists, and I find that being able to set my own schedule, my own pace, and be fully available for my son is so much more essential than any benefit. Even if I had free child care, I wouldn’t want to take it. I don’t want child care to be a routine part of my son’s life, and writing freelance gives me the option of eschewing paid care in favor of the care I can provide.
Governments Must Let Mothers Be Mothers
The economy of motherhood has changed, and in these places where housing is expensive, commutes are long, and daycare and after-school programs are a pricey commodity, mothers often have to make a hard choice between earning a decent living and raising their children in as hands-on a way as many would prefer. Much has been reported on the phenomenon of educated women leaving the workforce after they have children, feeling the need to switch their attention from working for a paycheck, or maybe even for the common good, to working for the success of their child’s future.
Legislators’ solutions are to increase child care options so mothers can have affordable places to leave their children. While programs like this are much lauded and have their uses, they do not actually do the thing so many moms prefer: give them the opportunity to raise their own kids.
Having a child is a huge responsibility, and I have been loathe to give that responsibility to someone else, whether I’m paying lots of money for the privilege or some small sum as determined by government programs. That’s why the right choice for me, right now, is to freelance, where I can set my own schedule, make my own rules, and tend to my own child.
No one is better equipped to care for him than I am, to make sure his needs are met, and to ensure he’s growing into a person with a strong moral compass who can take care of himself and those he cares for. Moms get screwed over enough. They are belittled and beleaguered, critiqued for leaning in too hard or leaning out too far, insulted for working high-powered careers or for giving them up.
The government too frequently wants to get in between mothers and their children in one legislative form or another. The last thing I want is a state assembly swooping in to protect me by destroying my livelihood.