California lawmaker challenges critics, journalists after bill leads to job cuts

Flanked by labor union representatives, Gov. Gavin Newsom signs Assembly Bill 5 into law during a bill-signing ceremony on September 18, 2019. (Photo: Office of the Governor/Handout)

In mid-December, more than 200 California-based freelance journalists and editors working for Vox Media learned they would no longer have a working arrangement with the company shortly after the start of the new year.

The cause of those pink slips was a controversial new measure signed into law in September that sought to provide more protections to workers in California, not kill their jobs.

That Assembly Bill 5 led to unemployment for these journalists and others was an unintended consequence of what was otherwise promoted as a well-intention bill that aimed to give workers in the so-called “gig economy” added protections, including recognition as employees and the right to form a union to negotiate better pay and benefits.

Flanked by representatives from some of the country’s top labor unions, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 5 in September with an Jan. 1, 2020 start date. The measure carves out a limited exemption for freelance journalists and editors, saying they can continue to work as independent contractors without employment recognition, but only if they submit fewer than 35 articles per year.

The author of the bill, Asm. Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, admitted in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that the cap on freelance contributions was “a little arbitrary.” The cap was originally 15 articles, but lobbying efforts from groups like the California News Publisher’s Association proved successful in raising the ceiling, although only slightly.

The consequences of the measure have been anything but arbitrary: Since news broke that AB 5 would have direct consequences on freelance journalists in California and the companies they work for, many organizations have elected to stop using California-based reporters and editors altogether, according to job postings reviewed by The Desk in the weeks since AB 5 was signed into law.

A job listing for Patch.com seeks freelancers to cover California news — as long as they don’t live in California. (Screen capture: The Desk/Supplied)

In November, the hyperlocal news organization Patch started posting job opportunities for freelance writers covering events and politics in California, but limited those roles to journalists “residing in Arizona, Oregon, Washington or Nevada.” The job listing was posted under the title “Freelance Relief.” An amended version of the listing eliminated the geographic restrictions.

Rev, a transcription and captioning service, said it would no longer allow independent contractors working in California to accept work through its service. “This saddens the entire Rev.com team, but the new law leaves us with no reasonable alternative,” a Rev executive wrote to a California-based freelancer in an email obtained by The Desk. “I am really sorry it has to come to this, and I cannot imagine how it must feel to get this news.”

Reuters, Conde Nast, Business Insider, the San Francisco Weekly and the San Francisco Examiner have also reduced or eliminated their use of freelance work from those based in California, according to testimony published on Twitter and additional information provided to The Desk via sources with knowledge of those companies’ plans.

Are you a freelance writer, reporter or editor who has been impacted by Assembly Bill 5? Want to share your story? Click or tap here to get in touch.

Gonzalez, the author of the bill, has emerged as one of its staunches defenders, confronting freelance journalists on Twitter after they’ve expressed concern over their job security — or, in some cases, have already lost their jobs or warned they will in the near future.

In October, Gonzalez criticized Huffington Post contributor Yashar Ali after he called to attention AB 5’s impending consequences for freelance journalists working in California, suggesting his concerns were invalidated because he “isn’t a journalist, (and) he’s not a constituent.” She clarified that AB 5 grew from a recent California Supreme Court decision in which truck drivers were classified as employers under a specific test that gauged whether a worker’s contributions to a company were pertinent or inconsequential to its overall business.

That test, known as the “A-B-C test,” was codified — not clarified — by AB 5, though Gonzalez begs to differ.

“It wasn’t a decision or a bill solely aimed at the gig economy,” Gonzalez tweeted on October 20. “Although there is massive misclassification in the gig economy. It certainly isn’t a bill aimed at freelancers. The exemptions provided added more flexibility than the decision for writers/photographers, not less.”

Freelancers took issue with that, including those who were told by Vox Media they’d be released from their positions. But Gonzalez downplayed the recent mass issuance of pink slips, saying Vox would be “replacing” those 200 jobs with “staff jobs.”

“I’m sure some legit freelancers lost substantial income, and I empathize with them at this time of the year,” Gonzalez tweeted, “but Vox is a vulture.”

Gonzalez’s tweet grossly overstated what was happening at Vox: The company was, in fact, converting some of the eliminated freelance positions into paid roles. But only 15 full- and part-time jobs were replacing the 200 freelance positions. While freelancers were invited to apply for the open positions, they weren’t guaranteed job placement or application priority over others.

A few days after Vox announced the pink slips, Gonzalez doubled-down on her support of AB 5, saying people “shouldn’t have to work 2-3 jobs or a side hustle to get by.” In a follow-up tweet, she downplayed a commenter suggesting AB 5 would have been better for freelance writers if the assembly member had spoken with anyone working in the journalism industry, saying journalism isn’t “2-3 side hustles.” She unleashed on a Twitter user who noted it would be harder for people living in California to take on additional work, saying “they shouldn’t fucking have to, and until you or anyone else that wants to bitch about AB 5 puts out cognizant policy proposals to curb this chaos, you can keep your criticism anonymous.”

(Screen capture via The Desk)

That type of sentiment has been common from Gonzalez, according to five freelance journalists, writers and editors who have engaged with her in a mixture of public and private settings. Some of those writers asked to remain anonymous because they are part of ongoing discussions with Gonzalez and other lawmakers to carve out further exemptions for freelance writers, reporters and editors; others asked not to be identified because they were concerned about their ability to find or maintain work.

“She seems to genuinely not care,” one writer said just before Christmas, who described her attitude as “callously indifferent…she has a flippant attitude about the consequences (AB 5 has) on people like me. She’s made it up in her mind that (AB 5) is good because (Gov. Newsom) signed it into law, and she doesn’t seem to care about the consequences it will have on people like me. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills after next month. It’s very stressful.”

Related story: Groups representing freelance writers sue over Assembly Bill 5

Another freelancer — an editor whose primary contractor is a well-known news aggregation website — said Gonzalez “painted everyone broadly with the same brush.”

“A truck driver is not the same as an Uber driver, and an Uber driver is not the same as a freelance writer or editor,” the editor said. “California doesn’t license lawyers the same way it licenses doctors. They’re different roles in different industries. Here, the law is treating everyone the same, even though everyone’s job is different. That’s the fundamental flaw with AB 5, and it’s really frustrating (Asm. Gonzalez) doesn’t get that.”

There was one encouraging sign she was starting to “get it” when she tweeted a possible concession on December 19.

“I almost regret asking this here,” she started her tweet, “but given the broad cross section of freelance writers here, it’s a start: if the bill was amended to make clear that the business-to-business exemption applies to freelance journalists who satisfied the requirements, would that work?”

Alisha Grauso, a writer based in Los Angeles who has been vocal about the flaws of AB 5, responded that the proposed concession was “definitely a solid start,” but cautioned that more work needed to be done. Another writer, Shannon Stirone, replied that freelance writers “should be exempt completely from AB 5” and suggested that the concession would needlessly entangle freelance writers in a web of bureucracy.

“Then you’re asking us to pay money to become LLCs,” Stirone wrote. ” This shouldn’t cost us anything, ideally.”

Gonzalez’s goodwill gesture ran out sometime over the weekend. Confronted with numerous tweets about AB 5, she angrily wrote that it was time people “get over it.”

“They think I’m unprofessional, dumb, unaware and/or angry,” Gonzalez wrote. “I am a woman of color who is direct, stands up for myself and others, and speaks my mind, every single time.”

“And yet you sure get angry when other women stand up for themselves if you’re on the other end,” Grouso replied.

Tweets mentioned in this article have been lightly edited for style, but not for content.