“Why should I have to leave because of a man-made disaster like AB5? Why should I leave?”
Tony Valle embodies the American dream. The first-generation American was born in Los Angeles to an immigrant single-mother with limited prospects for success, but with a desire to reinvent herself. For the first seven years of his life, Valle was raised by social workers in the Los Angeles Barrio of Pacoima.
“I was a welfare child,” Valle said in an interview with IWF. “However, I had the good fortune of living from the ages of seven to 18 in a very affluent area of San Diego. What that meant for me was that there were opportunities around me to work and earn money.”
At age 10, he began washing the luxury cars that he saw in driveways across San Diegan neighborhoods. Then, at around age 14, he began working as a dishwasher in a popular restaurant.
“With the money I earned, I bought my own clothes and shoes for school, and I even paid for my own school lunches because I could not stand the idea of using the welfare coupons they required me to give to the lady at the cafeteria counter,” Valle said.
From dishwasher to busboy to waiter, Valle understood the value of the flexibility his working arrangements provided. He even went to college while working nights at a restaurant to pay his way through school.
This hunger for opportunities and a better life eventually drove Valle to a career in sales. But five years ago, he felt a calling to put his bilingualism to good use and help those who needed someone to speak for them.
Valle went back to school to become a certified interpreter. He now serves as a freelance interpreter in the California court system.
With about 4,000 certified interpreters in California, finding a full-time job in the field isn’t easy. Working as an independent contractor gives Valle the flexibility to earn a living in various ways. In addition to serving the courts, Valle also contracts with various interpreting agencies.
“If a law firm has a client coming in and they realize the client needs an interpreter, they pick up the phone and call the agency,” he said. “Now the agency in turn contacts me and says, ‘Tony we have a deposition available for you on this day and at this time will you take it: yes or no?’ I can say yes, I can take it, these are my rates and I have freedom to be able to set my own rates based upon my experience.”
Tony explains why this freedom is attractive to the thousands of independent contractors.
“They are mothers taking care of their children or elderly adults, or they’re taking classes for their education, in other words serving as an interpreter is part of what they do; not all of what they do,” Valle said.
But California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) takes away that ability and so much more. It puts Valle and the thousands of other freelance interpreters in a precarious situation: finding full-time work in a labor market that has few vacancies and losing control of their schedules.
Restrictions on Independent Contractors
California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) became law in 2019. Proponents say the law ensures freelancers and independent contractors have greater protections like guaranteed unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, and worker’s compensation.
Instead, by requiring companies to hire freelancers as full-time employees in order to offer these ‘protections’, it makes it harder for many to find opportunities to work.
About 50 occupations received exemptions from the law thanks to lobbying power. Many more are non-exempt. For example, in any given courtroom, there are a variety of individuals working to ensure things run smoothly. There are lawyers, a court reporter, often (in California) a court interpreter, and so on. Only lawyers are exempt from AB5. The court reporter and interpreter are non-exempt.
“Tell me how that makes any sense?” Valle asks. “We’re all working together in that same courtroom and yet only the lawyer is exempt.” It comes down to one thing: the power of the unions.
Interpreting agencies, many of which are small and owned by local entrepreneurs, won’t be able to afford to offer full-time employment to court interpreters. Valle understands the economics from the employers perspective: If they only have jobs that last a few days a week, they can’t have a full-time employee on the books. It makes sense for these agencies to employ freelancers rather than full-time employees.
“How are they supposed to justify paying me a salary with no guarantee they will use me?” Valle asked. “Are they going to have me stuff envelopes, or get the laundry for the owner? What kind of menial tasks will I be assigned to do when there are no assignments?”
Inspiring a Great Awakening
Because of AB5, many firms are no longer working with Californian freelancers. That means Valle has less work opportunities and income. Before AB5, Valle worked with about a dozen agencies, but now he only works with about three or four.
“There was one agency that I’m currently working with, and they have headquarters in another state,” Valle said. “They said that because of AB5, we can’t offer you telephonic interpretation, which is the majority of the work. If there’s a face-to-face assignment we can send you to that though. During COVID, it would have been nice for me to be able to work telephonically.”
Valle said many of his friends and neighbors decided to leave California because of AB5. And he admits, it’s something he fantasizes about every single day. But he’s built a life in California and doesn’t want to leave it behind.
Valle’s been active locally raising awareness about the harmful effects of the law. He’s visited his local representatives, attended rallies, and even participates in Facebook groups on the issue. He’s hopeful that change will come and that AB5 will inspire a great awakening to the dangerous path that he says our country is pursuing.
“My hope is ultimately that the suffering will reach such a level where it can’t be ignored,” he said. “It’s like waiting for the patient to become so desperately ill that at that point you seek to take drastic action to try to save them. The hippocratic oath is to do no harm. The politicians swear the opposite.”
Do you have a story about how AB5 or other independent contracting laws have affected your ability to work? Share your story here.