California just made it harder for young professionals like me to find work

AB5 makes life more difficult for California freelancers.

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California just made it harder for young professionals like me to find work

State Assembly Bill 5, or AB5 makes it hard for freelancers to find jobs.

State Assembly Bill 5, or AB5 makes it hard for freelancers to find jobs.

Courtesy of unsplash.com

State Assembly Bill 5, or AB5 makes it hard for freelancers to find jobs.

Courtesy of unsplash.com

Courtesy of unsplash.com

State Assembly Bill 5, or AB5 makes it hard for freelancers to find jobs.

Austin Green, Freelance Writer

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I had a vague concept of the new California law known as State Assembly Bill 5, or AB5, when I stumbled across a LinkedIn article written by a friend about the impact the bill would have on businesses in the state. Within minutes, I was down an internet rabbit hole reading employer watchdog websites because as a college student and pre-professional journalist, I knew this law would likely directly affect me—and not in a positive way. 

Written by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, AB5 was passed and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 and took effect on Jan. 1. Its intent is to close a loophole used by employers who under-compensate workers by identifying them as independent contractors instead of part-time or full-time employees. Contractors—which is basically a formal term for freelancers—do not count as employees, meaning employers are not required by state law to pay certain wages or provide benefits and workers’ compensation.

AB5 tried to close that legal loophole by providing a much stricter set of requirements that businesses must meet in order to label workers as contractors instead of employees. As noble as its intent may seem, the law itself is at best ineffective and at worst makes it nearly impossible for those who freelance by choice to continue making a living in what is known as the “gig economy.” 

THE ANTI-JOURNALIST ABC TEST

AB5’s new requirements for contractors, named the “ABC” test, mean that in order to not be considered a full employee, a worker must be: A) Free from the control that the company would typically exert over an employee, B) Performing work that is not essential to that company’s operations and C) Routinely does work within that same trade outside of that company. 

The hurdles for journalists are obvious. Freelance writers, for instance, are almost always subject to editorial oversight just like any other writer at a publication would be—and rightfully so. They perform essential work for a publication by providing content. In many cases, especially for entry-level journalists, they may be writing for that publication primarily to gain experience, which they can use to move up the industry ranks.

AB5 does provide full exemptions from the ABC test for contractors in some industries, such as artists, realtors and designers. For some inexplicable reason, freelance writers, editors and photojournalists are not fully exempt but rather only protected from the ABC test within their first 35 submissions of work for a publication. 

This is already causing chaos within journalism, most notably at Vox Media, which laid off hundreds of California-based contracted bloggers to comply with AB5. According to one of the laid-off contractors, Vox was paying some of them as much as several thousand dollars per month before AB5 made it illegal to employ them. Some of those affected by the layoffs were friends or acquaintances of mine. 

One of my mentors, Harrison Faigen of Vox’s Los Angeles Lakers website through its SB Nation network, was directly protected from the layoffs because he had been promoted to an employee position beforehand. However, he lost nearly his entire staff at Silver Screen & Roll, where he is editor-in-chief, because of AB5. Additionally, he later tweeted that he would have never received his current job if not for the opportunity given to him as an unpaid freelancer and then contractor.

HITTING HOME

When I started learning about AB5, my first thought went to my own career path as a young journalist. For about as long as the journalism industry has existed, freelancing has proven to be one of the best ways for journalists to get their first professional assignments and earn career opportunities that they might not get otherwise. 

I know this firsthand. Over a nine-month span in 2019, I was an unpaid intern and then contracted staff writer at a popular Los Angeles-based sports media startup. I hardly made anything after I got promoted and had to seek out other jobs while living at home last summer. 

Did I wish I was paid more? Of course I did. However, I would not trade the experience of that gig for anything. I learned so much, was mentored by a smart, kind and patient editorial staff, and forged new connections that could lead to more opportunities after I graduate in May. Other sports journalists who launched their careers at the same startup have gone on to work at Bleacher Report, NBC Sports and Klutch Sports—the agency that represents LeBron James and several other NBA stars—just to name a few.

Additionally, it is financially viable to freelance if you are paid on commission, just like with any gig economy industry. In fact, many veteran journalists freelance on a full-time basis, choosing to pursue and pitch stories on their own terms instead of confining themselves to one publication or media platform. It has been possible, even in a place with the enormous living costs of California, for many to provide for themselves this way.

The Chimes’ faculty advisor Michael Longinow even teaches a journalism course here at Biola called “Magazine and Freelance Writing,” where he tries to simulate the process of researching publications and pitching stories so his students have some experience in this area if they choose to freelance after graduation.

He may have to shorten that course title. 

NOT JUST JOURNALISM

AB5’s career-throttling path of destruction does not end at journalism. Do a quick search of #AB5 on Twitter or Google and you will find stories of women (and especially working mothers), immigrants, people of color and senior citizens across a wide swath of industries who are now struggling to make ends meet because their career is no longer legally viable under AB5. These include musicians, translators, caregivers and plenty other of important workers whose impact in California communities I have seen firsthand.

As is the case with most controversial pieces of legislation, some journalistic organizations tried—and rightfully so—to find people who support the new law as well as those who are opposed to get both sides of the issue. Of course, they found plenty of the latter. But in at least two separate instances, journalists could not find anyone who actually supported, or was helped by AB5.