“Really, my whole life is built around freelancing, I’ve done this for 20 years.”
David Higbee has been working as a freelancer for 20 years. Fluent in both Spanish and Japanese, he is a certified court interpreter but also works in a variety of related fields. He has worked as a media interpreter, an interpreter at film festivals, a subtitle translator, a voice-over talent, and as a technical translator. Higbee says he sees himself as a small business or a store: he has main services that make the best money as well as side projects that fill his time.
Higbee started freelancing right after college in 2001. He found that there simply weren’t any translation companies hiring translators as employees, much less in Utah. After some time, he found an agency that needed medical interpreters. As an independent contractor through the agency, Higbee became the main medical interpreter at the University of Utah Hospital emergency room. He enjoyed that, but decided to pursue career advancement by becoming a certified court interpreter as well.
In 2014, Higbee moved to California to work as an in-house interpreter at Honda Research and Development. But during his employment there, his wife and children were still living in Utah because that job didn’t pay enough to support moving his whole family to California. After driving back and forth most weekends and taking side jobs to save money, an unpleasant situation at his work spurred Higbee to leave the Japanese automotive company.
He decided to go back to freelancing and has never looked back. Higbee says: “Instantly my situation improved when I went back to freelancing.”
Soon, he was able to get a house for his family and move them to California.
“To tell me that it’s better to be an employee than a freelancer is absolute bulls**t,” he said. “There is no full-time job in California, save being the CEO in a company, that will pay everything that I need to earn to support my family of seven in Southern California.”
Working as an independent contractor even allows him to sometimes work with his wife on a freelance basis. His wife is from Argentina, and she is a skilled Spanish editor. She works like any other independent contractor by sending Higbee an invoice for her services. According to Higbee, she doesn’t want to be an employee. She just wants to work when he has projects where she can be an asset.
Higbee is passionate about the clear and present harm that AB5 is inflicting on independent contractors like him. “You’re taking choices away from people,” he said. “It creates this dynamic that doesn’t work for millions and millions of people.”
Already, Higbee has lost income due to AB5. While speaking of projects where different skillsets are needed, he says: “If I can’t subcontract that part of the project to somebody else, I can’t quote on the project. I couldn’t quote on a multi-million dollar contract because of AB5.”
While proponents of AB5 would argue that he should establish a business that hires translators as employees, Higbee pushed back against that concept. “You cannot predict the volume of work that you’re going to get in even one language,” he said. “You can’t predict that kind of thing to hire somebody and put them on payroll.”
He says it would be a constant cycle of hiring and firing people, probably to the point that he’d have to hire someone to just take care of the constant turnover.
Since the implementation of AB5, Higbee says that most of the out-of-state translation and interpretation agencies haven’t sent him work. They simply don’t want to deal with complications of having to comply with California’s complicated rules. As he describes: “They’re just going to ghost you.”
Only one agency has helped him to work-around AB5.
But AB5 has limited the type of work that is now available to independent contractors. In Higbee’s case, he has had to go back to translation work because interpreters aren’t exempt from AB5. He describes that he was approached by a consulting company to work as a W-2 employee, but that working as a W-2 employee would only hurt Higbee more.
He wants to maintain the flexibility that he enjoys as an independent contractor. Luckily, he’s been able to work it out so that he can provide services for the consulting company by limiting the type of projects they assign him–only translation and interpretation. That way, it’s still compliant with AB5 because translation and consulting are two separate lines of business.
Normally, Higbee would have around 50 work agreements each year. AB5 has already cut down that number, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. He says that he knows of many agencies that are still hiring freelancers, just not in California.
Motivated to fight AB5 beyond the personal harm it’s inflicting on him, Higbee paints a dire picture: “Imagine how bad this is for elderly people, who are already discriminated against for jobs, for single moms, the main breadwinners in their home, and for minorities, one of the easiest jobs for skilled immigrants to enter is to work as an interpreter.”
Higbee is passionate about personal choice. “If [individuals] have to make less money to get the benefits, it should be them who make the decision, not the state.”
Do you have a story about how AB5 or similar independent contracting laws have affected your ability to work? Share your story here.