California Legislators Struggle With AB 5 Reform

California Legislators Struggle With AB 5 Reform

March 13, 2020
Biden and bill’s author get stung by contractors who have lost work.

Former Vice President Joe Biden may be cruising to his party’s nomination for President, but he created a furor in early March among many of those in California who normally would be his natural Democrat supporters when he praised the state’s highly controversial AB 5 law banning most kinds of independent contractors.

Taking to Twitter, they weren’t shy about telling him why he is wrong:

  •  “You are supporting a law that is devastating California! writers, photographers, videographers, translators, indie musicians, special ed teachers, specialists of any kind have lost their livelihoods!”
  •   “OMG, do you want all of us voting for Trump? This law is devastating all successful independent contractors in California. Reconsider this… this is serious.”
  • “Hey, lifelong Dem here. AB 5 resulted in me losing $1,000 of work every month. Fewer companies want to work with me. I hate this law, even though I want greater worker protections. It needs to be repealed or fixed as soon as possible.”
  •  “My mom either loses her income or is forced to move out of California to keep a 30-year career as an independent contractor, due to AB 5. She's sixth-gen California born. You just lost our votes. For the first time in my life I voted red. I felt sick to my stomach.”
  •  “Wow! I guess we will be voting for Trump in California – signed, a professional single mom who has had no income for over two months.”

In late February, the bill’s author, Democrat State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, formerly an AFL-CIO officer, stirred up controversy when she was confronted by anti-AB 5 demonstrators at a rally in her hometown of San Diego for then presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

They were holding signs and shouting: “Repeal AB 5.” Gonzalez responded by yelling: “F*** Trump” back at them. In one news account, a demonstrator present was quoted saying: “How illiterate can you be to not see signs that say AB 5 and then yell, f-Trump.” That demonstrator was a woman who said she worked as a translator and interpreter whose potential clients were going outside of California to find people to do her kind of work rather than risk running afoul of the new law.

Gonzalez earlier had gotten into a Twitter battle with freelancers, who bristled after she accused them of being in favor of widespread exploitation of workers because they had stated their opposition to AB 5.

Democrats’ Blind Spot

The views Gonzalez expressed have been considered gospel among mainstream Democrat policymakers and union officials for many years now. During the Obama administration, the then-head of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, publicly proclaimed that there were no such thing as independent contractors, just misclassified employees – a view that was echoed word for word by Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign.

Also devastated by the law’s independent contractor ban have been people with disabilities and chronic health conditions who rely on this kind of work because it offers flexible work options to accommodate their physical limitations and schedules that include treatment and therapy. The disabled are almost twice as likely to be self employed compared to those who are not disabled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also, people who are responsible for taking care of sick or disabled family members are similarly more dependent on gig work to make a living.

Democrat lawmakers in California have been feeling the heat from contractors and their families since the law went into effect on Jan. 1. No fewer than 34 new bills to eliminate or reform AB 5 have been introduced in the state legislature this session. Included in their number are Republican proposals for taking steps to repeal the law which don’t stand a chance of being passed in the Democrat-dominated legislature. (One of them already had been defeated by the time this was written).

Other proposals more likely to pass would expand the list of professions that were excepted from the law when it was written last year, which ranged from lawyers to Amway sales representatives. New legislation seeks to carve out exceptions for free-lance writers, graphic artists and musicians (the “gig” in “gig work” comes musicians’ slang for a paying job.)

Several of the bills would expand exemptions to including barbers, cosmetologists, small business owners, pharmacists, physical therapists, franchisors/franchisees, timber operators, marriage/family therapists, health care providers, land surveyors, landscape architects, interpreters and translators, certified shorthand reporters, youth sports referees/umpires and newspaper carriers.

“If there were any doubt, it is now clear that AB 5 will continue to be the most significant labor and employment policy issue in Sacramento for the near future,” according to attorney Benjamin Ebbink of the Fisher Phillips law firm. “It’s a very significant policy issue that impacts millions of individuals in California.”

Legislators in states like New York, New Jersey and Illinois already had hit the pause button on proposals similar to AB 5 because of court injunctions that have blocked California from enforcing AB 5 in regard to truck drivers. It appears that the trucking industry has made a strong argument that the law violates federal transportation law and the U.S. Constitution when it comes to truckers.

Rebuffed in trying to make a similar argument in court, ride  share companies Lyft and Uber as well as delivery firms like DoorDash are already facing the first wave of enforcement actions being taken by state agencies.

The turmoil in the California legislature and the strong popular opposition to the law that it created certainly have not gone unnoticed in those states and others considering similar measures, including Oregon and Washington State.

“This year’s legislative activity may also portend how this issue develops in other states – or even at the federal level,” offers Ebbink, where a bill similar to AB 5 has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the message has not yet gotten through to everyone. Former presidential candidates Mike Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg also joined Joe Biden in supporting the proposed federal legislation. 

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