California is usually a bastion of progress and creativity, but the September passage of Assembly Bill No. 5 could change all that. The law, which forces rideshare giants like Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors, winds up calling into question the legality of nearly all independent contractor arrangements.
The result? Lots of law suits and strife—and a creative class, accustomed to flexible freelance gigs, in crisis.
One controversial AB5 carve-out requires companies to classify some types of creative freelancers (writers, editors, and photographers) as employees once they contribute more than 35 assignments—something publishers want to avoid. As a result, many California freelancers are bracing for fewer work opportunities and shrinking pay-outs from their biggest clients. Newspapers were granted a one-year extension to comply, but publishers are already shifting away from California freelancers.
We knew anecdotally that freelancers found the 35-submission limit—any limit, for that matter—infuriating. Our freelance advisory board is tiffed, as is our network of managing editors. But given our relationship with the freelance community—we have more than 150,000 of them in our network—we wanted to know whether they are really as opposed as the media coverage suggests.
We polled freelancers in December of 2019 to find out, and the results are in: They are not happy.
Freelancers Are Staunchly Opposed to California AB5
The Freelancer polled independent contractors during December of 2019. Of nearly 600 respondents, 67 percent had been freelancers for longer than five years and 24 percent were residents of California. Here’s what we found:
The 4 biggest takeaways from our AB5 survey
Freelancers have bigger fish to fry
Seventy-seven percent of freelancers said they have more pressing concerns than the ones addressed by AB5. What keeps them up at night? Healthcare, lack of affordable insurance, difficulty recouping unpaid wages, and steep self-employment taxes. All these burdens come with working outside the fold of employer-paid benefits and represent meaningful opportunities for governments to help freelancers.
Freelancers are freelance by choice
Lawmakers may view freelancing as a last resort, but 75 percent of respondents chose to freelance because they prefer it to full-time work. Additionally, a little more than half of freelancers said they have access to more professional opportunities than they would as full-timers. There was little indication from our survey that creative freelancers in California or elsewhere feel that freelancing is exploitative. Rather, they view themselves as disadvantaged by a system that affords them none of the protections enjoyed by full-time workers.
Freelancers don’t trust that lawmakers understand the nature of their work
A staggering 87 percent of survey respondents do not trust that lawmakers understand the nature of creative freelance work and are representing their best interests by regulating it. One reason could be that remarks from the bill’s chef architect, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), point to a belief that long-term or high-output creative freelance arrangements are exploitative by nature:
AB5 allows for an individual company to utilize a freelancer 35 times before either making them an employee, or establishing a business to business relationship with the writer. It seeks to eliminate exploitive permalance positions not legitimate freelance opportunities.
— Lorena (@LorenaSGonzalez) December 30, 2019
There’s little doubt Gonzalez thought her legislation would help rather than hurt freelancers. But many see the logic of the 35 limit as inherently flawed: It punishes the most successful and active freelancers (a writer with a weekly column, for example), who, under the law, are more likely to be capped at 35 submissions than hired full-time. Twitter is filled with tweets to that effect:
35 articles a year is less than three a month. Some freelancers write multiple stories a day. You just put a state-mandated cap on my income, which is very important to keeping my family afloat. How will you enforce how many articles someone wrote in a particular year for pay?
— Jason Fordney (@FordneyEnergy) December 30, 2019
I would hit 35 articles for a single client in about three months. I make over $150,000 a year. And you think my clients are exploiting me? I don’t want to be a full-time employee. #FixAB5
— Kat Tretina (@KatTretina) December 30, 2019
Of course, all of this begs the question: How did we arrive at a 35-submission limit in the first place? Arbitrarily, in Gonzalez’s own words.
Freelancers are worried that work will leave California
Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they believe publishers will hire freelancers in other states if freelancing becomes too risky or burdensome in California. Twenty-nine percent think publishers in California will slash their freelance budgets. Their fears are not unfounded. Vox shed ties with 200 California freelancers in December in preparation for AB5.
What’s ahead for AB5?
While the battle over the 35-submission limit plays out in courts and online, there are signs that lawmakers in California are hearing freelancers’ concerns. Republican State Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) recently introduced legislation that would exempt freelance writers and newspaper carriers from AB5, and Gonzalez has been meeting with groups opposed to her bill, according to the Associated Press.
Undoubtedly, lawmakers in other states are watching closely. Washington, New York, Illinois, and other states are considering similar curbs on contract work. But if freelancers have any say, the curbs will exempt creatives who make a living, well, freelancing.
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*Contently’s Talent Network comprises more than 150,000 freelance creatives around the world. A handful will see their Contently workload shrink as a result of California AB5.
Philip Garrity is the director of talent and editorial services at Contently.