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In Wake Of Wuhan Virus, California Needs To Suspend Its Ban On Gig Work

freelancers writers work from home

The disastrous gig law that smashed into the California freelance economy on Jan. 1 should be immediately suspended by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The harms of the pro-union law — which re-classes independent contractors as employees under the guise of shielding them from the companies they work for, putting many freelancers out of business by effectively banning long-term contract work — are exacerbated under the Wuhan coronavirus mayhem.

As employees stream home and states rack up state-of-emergency declarations, Newsom should realize more Californians will be able to work as freelancers than employees. At a time employment is hard to come by and keep, nothing should stand in the way of working from home for Californians who can do so.

San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who sponsored the law, AB5, worked on its language with the AFL-CIO labor union in an effort to solidify the distinction between employees and freelancers. The idea was that by clearly dividing between workers who are meant to be traditional employees and those who are able to be freelance contractors, California workers who should have the benefits of employee status would gain it. The law, however, hurt California workers more than it helped them.

After the law was implemented, the backlash was swift and fierce. While the idea was that employers would have to hire those workers who were now officially unable to be classed as freelancers, instead many were let go from their contracts or less-formal agreements. These workers included drivers, performers, musicians, writers, film production crew, photographers, tutors, and any other freelancers whose work was, in effect, resold by the company to which they supplied their labor.

It was bad enough before the coronavirus pandemic. But now that people are either working from home or just not working, this law prevents homebound and unemployed people from offering their virtual labor without an employment contract. Imagine being laid off from your job, or having your company close because the Wuhan virus makes business impossible, and finding that you are simply unable to take up freelance gigs because your statewide legislators want to protect you from being exploited by your non-existent employer.

People can engage in all kinds of freelance work from home. In accounting, writing, photography, tutoring or teaching, art, musical composition, design, and so many other fields, working remotely is quite possible. Newsom should suspend the law that prohibits these would-be workers from taking their livelihoods into their own hands and employing themselves however they can in this absurdly difficult time.

The Orange County Register’s editorial board published an op-ed to this effect, calling on Newsom to release Californians from these stupid restrictions. It noted that AB5’s employment restrictions affected an estimated 2 million Californians.

“Coronavirus is imposing widespread economic hardship among moderate-income workers, as consumers quarantine themselves at home and stop frequenting restaurants, stores and events,” the editorial board wrote. “The state should suspend any law that makes it even more difficult for Californians to pay their bills during this difficult time.”

While the board was always against AB5, it rightfully pointed out, “Empty grocery store shelves remind us of the important role of delivery drivers. We desperately need more drivers who can get goods to stores and deliver products to people’s homes. In fact, it’s far safer to have food and household goods delivered directly to people’s doors rather than have people waiting in store lines where the virus can easily be spread.”

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley has proposed AB2075, which would effectively put AB5 on hold until next year, when hopefully the pandemic will have washed past us. Suspending this poorly thought-out law would not only help Californians looking to benefit their bottom lines, but also give the state Assembly the opportunity to rethink and repeal the law.

After California passed AB5, laws of its ilk were picked up around the country, most notably in New York with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s backing. A similar bill, the PRO Act, lifted the same language from AB5 and passed in the U.S. House. Sen. Chuck Schumer promised he would pass the bill if it were to come up for a vote in the Senate. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka vowed to pull labor support from any Democratic senator who did not vote in favor of the law.

Politicians should never deny Americans their ability to control their own earning power just to gain financial support from labor unions intent on increasing their dues-paying membership rolls. If the PRO Act were federal law, countless Americans would be unable to feed their families and pay their bills through this pandemic.

The economy is already facing destruction, and no laws should prevent people from using their labor as best they can to see themselves and their families through this nightmarish and unprecedented scenario. Suspending AB5 is the only humane thing to do.