Without Changes, AB 5 Will Harm Freelance Journalists

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SD-SPJ) would like to update its members on a piece of legislation that could impact the careers of freelance journalists in the state.

For the last few months, SD-SPJ has been keeping an eye on AB 5, legislation authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego. AB 5 seeks to codify into law a recent state Supreme Court ruling about how workers are classified. 

The ruling created a three-pronged “test” for differentiating between independent contractors and employees for purposes of certain California wage laws. The second prong, which has raised concern among freelance journalists, columnists, photojournalists, and other content creators states that a worker will be considered an employee if he or she performs work that is within the usual course of the hiring entity’s business. The Supreme Court ruling essentially made it impossible for a newspaper to use freelancers to produce content and, as a result, some media companies have severed ties with California freelancers.

While we agree that employers need clarity on how to classify their workers, SD-SPJ and other media organizations have asked Gonzalez to consider adding exemptions to the bill that will allow California-based freelancers to continue to work and media companies to continue to hire them. As introduced, the bill would have required newsrooms to make freelance writers part-time employees — something editors will tell you is easier said than done for reasons that have nothing to do with the worker exploitation this bill seeks to address.

Gonzalez has said she’s open to amending the bill and has been taking input from a number of organizations. But the latest amendment by the Senate’s Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee is, in our opinion, not workable. The provision, added Wednesday, would limit to 25 the number of “submissions” a freelancer can produce annually for a client. This cap raises a number of concerns for us including how “submission” is defined. What about a photographer who shoots dozens of photos for one assignment? What about freelancers who write a weekly column? Additionally, even if ambiguities in the term “submission” could be resolved, we believe that 25 submissions per year per client is too low.

The California Newspaper Association came up with a sensible proposal that we thought fairly addressed concerns on both sides. You can read the proposal here.

Freelancers play a vital role in adding diverse voices, experiences, and viewpoints to published platforms of all sorts. We appreciate Gonzalez’s concern that workers not be exploited, but we fear that newsrooms and other outlets will simply cut freelancers rather than hire them as part-time employees or deal with cumbersome, vague rules. We hope that as AB 5 moves towards a final Senate vote, Gonzalez and other state lawmakers will sit down with journalists and come up with a solution.

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