From local newspaper columnists to court reporters, from musicians and sound mixers to seamstresses, it’s difficult to find a skilled field where the most destructive law California has adopted in the last few years does not hurt substantial numbers of people.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic threw unprecedented millions of workers onto unemployment and wrecked myriad businesses, the measure known as Assembly Bill 5 was destroying careers willy-nilly.
It’s become extremely obvious just how amateur and clumsy an effort this bill was from the moment of its conception. In a California economy that thrived for years on gig workers (who themselves often thrived as they moved from company to company, taking the best offers available), this law, signed last September by Gov. Gavin Newsom, became sawdust in the gears of business and employment.
Freelancers in many fields were dumped by the hundreds, adding up to many thousands in the months between the bill signing and its Jan. 1 effective date.
The bill’s inept author, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, soon admitted it needed revisions and submitted a few for legislative consideration. These were quickly placed on the back burner as lawmakers, like other Californians, sheltered at home most of the spring. On their return to Sacramento, where they essentially sanctioned months of one-man rule by Newsom, they were justifiably consumed with budget issues, a preoccupation brought on by vast tax losses from the state’s long lockdown.
It’s plain why AB 5 passed in the first place: Labor unions badly wanted to organize the many thousands of drivers working freelance for rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, folks who worked when they pleased, as long as they pleased. What befell others in a wide variety of freelance occupations was collateral damage in the war between unions and the big rideshare outfits.
But the virus lockdown reduced traffic in California’s urban centers anywhere from 35% to 65%. This did more than merely allow remaining drivers to feel like they could set land speed records every time they ventured onto a freeway. It also took vast numbers of rideshare drivers off the road.
With businesses shuttered and the majority of Californians sheltering at home and/or working from home, there has also been little need for Uber or Lyft. Where are folks sheltering at home going to go?
Meanwhile, insecurities some women had about encountering attempted rapists or gropers when drivers showed up during the heyday of ridesharing quickly evolved into worries about getting exposed to COVID-19 if they ventured into a stranger’s car. A stranger whose medical history and past exposure to contagion were of necessity unknown to riders.
So why keep a law intended to instigate the unionization of a workforce that’s greatly reduced? There really is little or no reason. Even the unions wouldn’t get much in the way of dues if they managed to organize every driver still working.
If Gonzalez admits she erred in writing a blunderbuss law that inadvertently — she says — damaged the prospects of people she didn’t know she was involving, why not just get rid of the whole thing?
Why should make-up artists have lost their jobs en masse just because unions wanted to gain new members among rideshare drivers?
Even worse, why should newspapers, which were already in precarious financial shape before the pandemic but then lost most of their local advertising income, still be forced to hire anyone who writes more than 35 stories per year (the limit set in AB 5) as a regular employee when they’ve had to lay off even more reporters and editors and ad takers than before? For that matter, why the specific limit on articles for freelance writers, when there are no analogous limits for any other gig workers? That limit alone suggests Gonzalez deliberately targeted newspapers and some of their writers.
The bottom line: This was a bad law when it passed. Now the coronavirus lockdown has exposed it as even worse than it first seemed. That means lawmakers should scrap the entire amateurish mistake, not merely tinker with it.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].