Commentary

California's Freelancer Law Magnifies COVID-19 Pain

California's misguided restrictions on freelance writers, editors and photographers haven't created one new job, and likely have made unemployment even worse during the coronavirus pandemic.

As publishers cut jobs amid a plunge in advertising revenue, those newly unemployed people in California have even less possibility of earning income from freelance work.

Republican lawmakers in the state last week failed to overturn a law that limits reporters and photographers to contributing 35 pieces of content to a single publication a year. After that, publishers are supposed to hire those journalists as full-timers, an impossibility now that many publications are cutting jobs, reducing print frequency or going out of business.

The limitation on freelancers was part of California's Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) that took effect on Jan. 1 — as part of a 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.

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They also would have a right to join labor unions, as many editorial employees have done for decades. Unfortunately, those union cards don't guarantee job security in a pandemic.

As it turned out, the federal government in March expanded unemployment insurance to cover gig workers, though the surge in claims has created a frustrating bottleneck. The feds also started offering contract workers a chance to receive forgivable loans through the Small Business Administration, which ignited controversy for favoring bigger companies.

With an unemployment rate estimated at 24%, California should want people to get back to work as quickly as possible. That includes giving journalists a chance to earn freelance income among the publishers that have budgets for assignments and are unwilling to expand their overhead costs by hiring full-timers.

Many journalism jobs are well suited for work-from-home settings, requiring a phone and an internet connection to interview sources and research background information. Countless publications are now operating virtually, exchanging emails and meeting by video conference.

Unfortunately, AB-5 is still in effect in California, with smug lawmakers like State Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, singularly personifying their contempt for freelance workers.

"I appreciate that some independent contractors are upset. AB 5 took away their lollipop,” she said during a debate over a measure to overturn the law, spurring a withering response on social media.

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