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How will California’s gig economy law pan out?

ON 1 JANUARY a law came into effect in the US state of California, intended to strengthen the position of workers in the "gig economy" Prosaically entitled "Assembly Bill 5", its purpose seems well-intentioned; enlightened, even. In order to close off all the loopholes so thoroughly exploited by the likes of Deliveroo and Uber to insist that they have no responsibility for their workers, it declares that "'Employee' means every person in the service of an employer under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied, oral or written, whether lawfully or unlawfully employed..."

'Everybody is freaking out': freelance writers scramble to make sense of new California law - headline

'Everybody is freaking out': freelance writers scramble to make sense of new California law - a Hollywood Reporter headline

Freelance Annalee Newitz in New Scientist wholeheartely supported the Bill: "gig economy companies have been promising that they would launch us into an age of smooth, post-scarcity goodness, where everyone could do the work they wanted to do, when they felt like it... But when the rubber met the road, it turned out that the algorithms didn't assign people enough work to survive. And then companies tried to squeeze even more money out of their gig workers..."

But what about those who want to be freelance? The Bill's introduction states that "Nothing in this act is intended to diminish the flexibility of employees to work part-time or intermittent schedules or to work for multiple employers." The catch that many perceive is in the definition of a freelance journalist: "a freelance writer, editor, or newspaper cartoonist who does not provide content submissions to the putative employer more than 35 times per year". There are similar provisions for photographers and illustrators.

As the Hollywood Reporter put it when the Bill was passed: "At a time when paid freelance stories can be written for a low end of $25 and high end of $1 per word, some meet that cap in a month just to make end's meet."

The Los Angeles Times pitched in with a leader under the headline "Newspapers are already struggling. California might make things even worse" that for some reason opened on the plight of "paperboys - and papergirls" and mentioned journalists only at the end. It concluded that "Everyone knows that big newspapers as well as small ones have been shedding staff..." In the 'burbs, Karen Anderson in the Orange County Register was more direct: " Freelance journalists fight for their livelihoods against Assembly Bill 5".

In December CNBC reported reported John Ness, executive director of the SB Nation division of Vox Media, writing: "In 2020, we will move California's team blogs from our established system with hundreds of contractors to a new one run by a team of new SB Nation employees." and elsewhere saying that California contractors can apply for a full-time or part-time position in California. Contractors who wish to continue contributing can do so but 'need to understand they will not be paid for future contributions'."

As one Tweeter observed of this report:

The PoV on this article is fascinating.

Assembly Bill 5... forbids nonemployees from submitting more than 35 articles per year.

As opposed to...

Assembly Bill 5 requires employers to consider journalist with more than 35 articles per year employees.

Of course, if freelances are welcomed into the fold as employees, under US law they lose copyright in their work by automatic operation of law - rather than through coercive contracts as too many do at present.

The National Writers Union, which organises freelances in the US, supported the Bill. It noted that "originally, there was no exemption at all for freelance writers, photographers, editors and other creative professionals...After several months of negotiation with groups larger and more powerful than ours, compromise language has emerged (not everything we wanted, but better than what we had before)."

The American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association filed a lawsuit on 17 December aiming to stop the Bill taking effect. At least one other was filed, on 30 December, by Uber and food delivery company Postmates.

The NWU also notes that "large gig economy companies have pledged a $90 million ballot initiative to exempt them from AB-5... in 2020".

It looks as though this will run and run...

3 January 2020

  • We added news of the lawsuits and Annalee Newitz supporting the Bill.