Fluent in English, Spanish, and sign language, Sophia Aguirre has worked as an interpreter for 30 years.
Whether it’s serving as a translator for video programs that enable the hearing-impaired to communicate by phone, or teaching American Sign Language to deaf children in their homes, Aguirre has helped countless Americans engage in daily life.
For them, there’s no question that her work is “essential.” But since January, Aguirre has struggled to maintain employment.
While COVID-19 hasn’t helped, the real obstacle is a new California law: Assembly Bill 5. The measure, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, is so notorious that in the Golden State, it’s known simply as “AB5.”
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Despite mounting pushback in California, Democrats want to take it nationwide, passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—dubbed the PRO Act—through the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year.
“AB5 will not only disrupt my life; it will destroy my life,” Aguirre said of the measure. “It will devastate me.”
Since AB5 took effect in California on Jan. 1, Aguirre said, agencies have been hesitant to hire her for translating work. Uncertain of AB5’s new terms, companies now view independent contractors as a risk.
“Instead of being an asset to them, we’re a liability,” she said.
As a result, Aguirre’s income has been slashed.
The Story Behind AB5
In essence, AB5 requires companies to reclassify “gig” workers as full-time employees. It was designed to target the gig economy; specifically, companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, which rely on thousands of independent contractors to provide their services. In exchange for flexible hours and the ability to come and go as they please, these workers forgo benefits such as health insurance, sick leave, and more.
Proponents of the measure argue that by severely regulating the type and scale of work independent contractors are allowed to perform, employers will be forced to hire them as full-time employees with benefits. However good the intentions were, in practice, AB5 has put independent contractors and small businesses out of work.
AB5 mandates three strict conditions that employers must meet in order to classify a worker as an independent contractor, rather than as an employee. One condition that has been particularly problematic for independent contractors requires that they perform “work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.”
That means that if Aguirre is acting as an interpreter for more than a few hours at a company that enables people with hearing disabilities to communicate over the phone, she now must be fully employed by that company instead of being an independent contractor who can set her own hours.
In addition to hurting her pocketbook, the policy hurts Aguirre personally. A single mom with two sons, she values flexibility over benefits or a salaried paycheck. Like many Californians, she’s an independent contractor by choice.
Taking Away a Yogi’s Flexibility
A traditional 9-to-5 job also never made sense for 54-year-old Jennifer O’Connell. A writer, yoga instructor, and career-reinvention coach, she prefers taking on an assortment of projects, rather than just one.
“It didn’t matter what time I did work, because I was talking to schools across the world,” she said. “That allowed me flexibility during my day to go teach my regular [yoga] classes for my part-time W-2 job and then come back and maybe work on an article, do interviews, or work on yoga certifications.”
Because of AB5, O’Connell said gyms and yoga studios can no longer hire her for occasional anatomy lectures anymore.
“They are moving training online, and that affects people like me who would go around and do lectures,” she said. “The small mom-and-pop studios aren’t going to open their doors again.”
The implications for O’Connell’s career have been so bad that she and her husband briefly considered leaving the state. But instead of leaving, O’Connell is fighting back, hoping that lawmakers and the constituents who vote for them hear her story and finally listen.
“Hopefully, the temperature of the electorate is very much tired of this kind of stuff,” she said. “If we stay loud and vocal, it could very well turn the presidential election, or at least influence it.”
A Writer’s Lost Dreams
JoBeth McDaniel doesn’t know O’Connell or Aguirre, but she can identify with their stories. A California freelance writer, McDaniel has enjoyed the perks of working for herself, since it helped pay her way through college in the 1980s. Her byline has been published in Life, AARP Magazine, Hearst Magazines, The New York Times, USA Today, and more.
In pursuing a career as an independent contractor, McDaniel creates and manages her own schedule, and avoids a three-hour commute in busy Los Angeles County. She doesn’t have to request time off for the doctor, to take a vacation, or when she wanted to care for her dying father. Traditional benefits aren’t something she wants or needs.
“There are all these very adult decisions that are at play when you freelance,” McDaniel said. “AB5 pretends that the state knows better than we do in making those decisions.”
In addition to limiting the amount of writing freelance workers can publish, AB5 brought McDaniel’s passion project to a grinding halt. For years, she’s been working on a book and wanted to produce an accompanying podcast. She paid for podcast training and was prepared to hire independent contractors to help produce and edit her work, but after consulting with lawyers and people in the industry, she concluded that because of AB5, “I just can’t do it right now. The risks are too high.”
That not only leaves McDaniel out of work, but also the contractors she wanted to hire.
“I just stopped all of it,” she says. “It was heartbreaking. I had put so much time into it.”
The Lasting Effects
AB5’s impacts don’t stop there. The measure has hit a variety of occupations: videographers, handymen, musicians, truckers, computer coders, and more. As part of the Chasing Work campaign, the Independent Women’s Forum is highlighting the diverse ways workers are being hurt.
For Aguirre, AB5 will “place me in a different social-economic status,” she said. And that’s not to mention the impact it will have on all those she helps.
O’Connell said that if AB5 isn’t repealed, she’ll lose her flexibility and choice. “They don’t want people having vocational and economic freedom,” she said. “They want you chained to the union. They want to make everyone a class of workers tied to the system.”
For McDaniel, AB5 is taking away her ability to work for herself. It’s “anti-American,” she said. “Self-employment is the American way.”
An estimated 36% of U.S. workers are involved in the gig economy, the vast majority by choice. With an economy now struggling because of COVID-19, the ability to work is more important than ever.
Instead of squeezing workers from the economy, politicians and lawmakers should do the opposite; namely, pursue policies that give Americans more choice, more flexibility, and more opportunities to work.