Hundreds of freelance writers and journalists started 2020 year with a pink slip because of a new California employment law meant to target the gig economy.

Vox Media laid off 200 freelance journalists this December in response to California’s gig economy employment law, AB 5, which just went into effect. 

Vox said it is replacing the 200 freelancers (including non-California writers) with 20 part-time and full-time staff writers. That’s good for 20 people, but what about the hundreds of freelancers who were left out in the cold? We don’t even know if any of the laid-off freelancers are guaranteed to be hired for a full-time position.

The irony is that Vox hailed the bill’s passage as “a victory for workers everywhere.” They must not have meant their freelance workforce. 

As we previously reported, AB 5 was an effort to force companies-particularly gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft- which employ independent contractors to reclassify those workers as company employees. The law imposes a stricter test on which workers can qualify as an independent contractor. Many occupations from janitors to truck drivers would now be reclassified (although certain groups successfully lobbied to have their workforces exempted like licensed real estate agents, commercial fishermen, and licensed barbers and cosmetologists).

Supporters of the bill promised that ridesharing drivers would get more pay and benefits because companies would have to abide by state laws and mandates including minimum wages, overtime, workers’ compensation, and paid time off.

Also buried in AB5 was a new limit on the number of content submissions that a contractor (i.e. journalists and writers) could produce to no more than 35 written submissions per year. That is fewer than one blog post or article a week which spells trouble for weekly columnists. This is what Vox was responding to when it gave its freelance writers the boot.

AB 5 set out to kill the gig economy, but it’s taking many others with it.

California lawmakers have once again imposed regulations that will strip workers of the opportunities they want and need.

Freelance workers and independent contractors were not asking for traditional employee benefits. The biggest benefit they get as freelancers and independent contractors is flexibility.

These Uber drivers, DoorDash delivery people, freelance writers, and handymen and women make their own schedules. They decide when, where, and how much they want to work and can adjust their schedules to meet their needs. They determine their earnings. not a boss.

Independent contractors intentionally trade employee benefits for flexibility.

Women are big beneficiaries of independent contracting, but their working opportunities may soon disappear.

Stay-at-home moms who earn a living writing for various news outlets will find their working opportunities limited. Women caring for aging parents or school-aged children will find that they can’t make up their own schedule to drive for a ridesharing company between caregiving duties like doctor’s appointments and school drop-offs and pickups.

According to a 2018 survey of women in the gig economy, the top reason they like working in the gig economy is flexibility and nearly two out of three said they prefer to be independent contractors compared to just 12 percent who wanted to be full-time employees.

Some are calling the impact on freelance writers an “unintended consequence” of the bill. However, the lawmakers who wrote the bill knew that by limiting the amount of work of freelance writers can submit, they would lose opportunities. Perhaps they assumed the companies would just turn them into full employees. Business does not work that way. 

AB 5 is a win for revenue-hungry lawmakers as companies will now have to pay payroll taxes on new employees and comply with other labor regulations. 

This is also a win for unions who have seen their numbers dwindle in recent years and technology deliver work opportunities that undercut the need for organized labor. 

Uber and Lyft vow to fight this law and are taking it to the courts as well as the people. They hope to overturn the law by referendum.

Other states are sure to follow California’s lead with New Jersey introducing similar legislation last year.

This law should be very concerning for anyone who supports flexible work opportunities and freelancers. AB 5 is not a victory for workers but a defeat for independent work.