While 2020 was a year of serious challenges, tragedies, and divisions, there were some bright spots. In this blog series, the IWF team looks back at the year’s highlights, silver linings, and redeeming themes as we countdown the days to 2021.

Many of us have probably never thought much about freelancers. Perhaps we have hired someone to do work for us or have done some freelance work in the past, as I have.

Freelancers, or independent contractors, became front-page news when California’s labor law reclassifying them as employees was enacted at the start of the year. Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) was supposed to be a win for workers, but it was exposed as a win for unions.

Independent contractors were knocked off their feet by AB5 and then had the rug pulled out from under them by the coronavirus. At IWF, we received stories from women and men in California who lost their income, contracts, and reliable jobs because the companies they normally worked with laid them off. The businesses simply could not afford to hire them as employees to be in compliance with the new law.

After the coronavirus broke out in mid-March and state and local governments shut down all events, closed schools, and forced nearly all businesses to shutter, many independent contractors who depended on these events and regular activities had no work for the foreseeable future. 

Millions of Californians were out of work as we faced an unprecedented national health and economic crisis. AB5 compounded that suffering.

Then, something amazing happened. Independent workers in California started to fight back. Although they could not do much about the coronavirus, they could speak out about AB5 and the hardship it was dealing them.

We launched our Chasing Work series to profile women and men in various occupationsfrom yoga instructors to opera singers—who lost their income, businesses, and livelihoods. [Read their stories and share your own.]

On Facebook, groups like Freelancers Against AB5 mobilized tens of thousands of followers. Individuals began to rally and organize, writers penned op-eds and articles about the harmful effects of AB5, and lawmakers heard from their constituents about the impacts of this law.

The author of AB5, Lorena Gonzalez, who mocked independent contracting jobs, was forced to admit that they would work to fix the law for years to come. By that she meant passing dozens of exemptions for different occupations which lobbied her. This was an implicit admission that the law was broken. It was sweeping, burdensome, and triggered hardship for people in occupations far beyond the intended target of big tech companies. However, exemptions are not the right way forward; repeal is.

Gonzalez’s pro-union motives were also exposed. If workers were reclassified as employees, then they could be unionized. It did not matter that most independent contractors choose this status for the flexibility to set their own schedules and freedom to be their own boss.  

Workers and citizens from every political background came together and made so much outcry that they could not be ignored.

Workers and companies in the gig economy also took the fight against AB5 to the voters and the courts. They successfully advanced Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that allowed workers for gig economy companies like Uber, Lyft, and Postmates to remain as independent contractors. Voters supported the measure. Meanwhile, they also filed legal suits against the state to halt the reclassification of workers. 

Throughout this fight, IWF has found ways to amplify the voices of independent contractors in the state. We also joined legal challenges (here and here). 

Women comprise a significant number of independent contractors. They value the flexibility to work around priorities such as caregiving for children, ill spouses, and aging parents.

I am encouraged to see how workers have forced an issue that was meant to fly under the radar out into the open and persuaded the public to their side.

The fight is far from over. Despite over a hundred exemptions, AB5 still stands. More troubling, copy-cat legislation has been introduced or considered in several other states and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (as part of the Protecting the Right to Organize or PRO Act). The incoming Biden Administration is supportive of these measures as well. 

There has likely never been such a direct threat to independent contracting in our nation as we have today, but I believe that American workers are up for the fight. Their livelihoods are on the line and they are not willing to let their freedom go.