Commentary

COVID-19 Pandemic Makes California Freelance Restrictions Even Worse

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive surge in joblessness that highlights the failings of California's gig worker restrictions, which unfairly punished freelance journalists. The state's lawmakers need to enact reforms immediately before they do any more financial damage to writers, editors and photographers.
The fiasco started when California's Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) took effect on Jan. 1 as part of its crackdown on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. The idea behind the law was to force the companies to treat drivers as full-time employees instead of independent contractors, making them eligible for benefits like health and unemployment insurance.
Unfortunately, the law also limited reporters and photographers to contributing 35 pieces of content to a single publication a year. After that, publishers were supposed to hire those journalists as full-timers, an unrealistic expectation as ailing publications grapple with declining advertising revenue.
The regulation also didn't recognize that many journalists want the flexibility of freelancing, especially if they've experienced the incessant job losses at local newspapers in the past 15 years. Many writers, editors and photographers have found that doing freelance assignments for a diverse clientele of publishers is more financially stable than depending on a single employer.
That's especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has aggravated the financial woes of many publishers. Allowing them more flexibility to retain freelancers can give journalists a much-needed financial lifeline while working from home during the quarantine.
There are signs that California is going to change the law to help freelancers in the publishing industry. State assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who authored AB 5 with the mistaken assumption that today's workforce is as rigid as it was in the 1950s, in February introduced a bill to ease restrictions.
The legislation, AB 1850, removes the 35-item yearly cap on freelance journalists, among other changes. The bill is still with the California State Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment. It's not clear when it will be approved, but it can't happen soon enough.

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