“My income has dropped down to a quarter of what it was before AB 5.”

Dori Lehner is 72 years young and has spent the last decade as a transcriptionist capturing spoken moments in time as written text.

Before 2009, Dori worked in various graphic production environments (including an ad agency and freelance) doing type-setting and page layout for print. It was intense work, but it supported her.

Then the recession hit and opportunities in this field disappeared. So, Dori took a part-time retail job and spent a year at Borders Books, but it was not what she wanted to do in her retirement. Yet, she needed income to supplement her retirement benefits.

After coming across an ad about transcription, she was determined to get into the field.

“Transcription allowed me to stay at home, be my own boss, and control my workflow and whom I work with,” Dori explained.

General transcription provided the easiest entry with the least investment. All she needed was a computer, software, headphones, and a foot pedal. There are other transcription specialties as well but they carry heavier requirements.

Court reporting requires training and certification, as does medical transcription, while legal transcription requires legal office experience, which she lacked.

Dori invested in a few short online training courses and taught herself. To grow her network and get her foot in the door, she joined a transcription forum and did volunteer transcription before finally contracting with an agency.

General transcription also opened up a fascinating new world for her.

“Entertainment, academic, business, personal oral histories, podcasts, earnings reports, insurance reports, and law enforcement,” are examples of the work she was contracted to transcribe.

“I loved it. I still love it. I wish I could do more. It gives you a window into so many fields that I would not have had any insight into. You listen to business conversations, teachers, or someone’s oral history of their grandparents.”

Working for a company as a full-time (W-2) employee is not amenable to this type of work.

“Clients need me for a short time or one project,” she explained. “But with agencies, I can be paid or reimbursed on a regular basis based on weekly or monthly invoices.”

This arrangement gives Dori the freedom and ability to work for multiple agencies. She can terminate a contract without penalty if the agreement no longer works for her.

For this senior citizen, transcription offered her more work opportunities than people her age usually find, which tend to be part-time and retail jobs.

Then in 2019, California passed AB5. Soon afterward, her contracts started to dry up.

One agency contacted Dori in September informing her that, because of the new law, it would not be able to send work after December unless she was willing to relocate.

“I only have one direct client now, and I only get work when they have it.” She hopes that work will pick up in the fall. “My income has dropped down to a quarter of what it was before AB5.”

Dori is not alone. Transcription work appears to be moving out of the state because a law that proponents claim was intended to protect workers from being exploited by tech companies has had the unintended consequence of eliminating work for nearly all independent contractors.

“AB5 doesn’t take into account this kind of business model. I don’t need health insurance. I would rather get a 1099 than a W-2. I can write off more expenses than if I had a W-2 job,” she explained referring to the two different employment classifications.

W-2 employees receive benefits and workplace protections, but many independent contractors prefer the flexibility to work on their terms. They receive 1099 forms from the companies that contract with them and they pay their own taxes.

Dori wants to see AB5 totally repealed.

“AB5 goes against so many precedents. The Constitution guarantees us the right to enter into contracts.”

She points to a law already on the books to deal with worker misclassification. She also highlights how “ridiculous” it is that some occupations received carve-outs from the law while others did not.

For her specific line of work, she recognizes that some transcriptionists (such as medical and legal) might prefer to be W-2 employees. Court reporters, however, are panicked, especially now that coronavirus is also threatening their livelihood because of halted in-person hearings.

“Who speaks for all of us?” she asked. These individuals, many of them women, do not have an umbrella organization to lobby for an AB5 exemption, nor should they need one.

With so much hardship for so many Californians, it’s time that AB5 be eliminated and opportunity restored to the state’s hard-working women and men who just want to work on their terms.

Do you have a story about how AB5 or similar independent contracting laws have affected your ability to work? Share your story here.