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A recent Independent story, which serves as the cover story in our March print edition, examines the mess that Assembly Bill 5 has made for independent musicians.

As the headline says … it’s a shit show.

You can read the specifics in the story—by my friend Kevin Allman, who recently moved to Southern California after a 12-year stint as the editor of the Gambit weekly in New Orleans—but I wanted to point out something I discovered while editing and fact-checking the piece: This AB 5 mess marks the first time that a lot of young adults have had to seriously deal with the consequences of a new state law … and they’re pissed. One tongue-in-cheek comment I saw on a social-media account sums it up: “Yay California. Way to lift people up. Regulations is just what we need!”

Actually … AB 5 was needed. It was just badly executed. In April 2018, in response to a case against a transportation company, the California Supreme Court ruled that a worker could only be considered an independent contractor (rather than an employee) if the worker met three specific criteria. As a result, the Legislature needed to step in and craft new law to clarify things … and that led to AB 5.

Well, AB 5 arguably made a bad situation worse: In an attempt to “protect” Lyft and Uber drivers, as well as drivers for services like Postmates and Grubhub, by making sure they were classified as employees, Rep. Lorena Gonzalez pushed through legislation that, with neither rhyme nor reason, exempted some gigs, while not exempting others. Graphic artists and fine artists were exempted … while musicians were not. Freelance writers were exempted, but only if they write 35 pieces or fewer for a publication/website in a year.

Why 35? I have no idea. Neither does anyone else.

Take the situation Independent music scribe Matt King now faces. Matt, for the most part, decides what he writes about; he suggests story topics, and I say yea or nay while giving him a deadline. He works when he wants, where he wants, and is paid more than a minimum-wage equivalent for his work. Yet barring a change in the law, I’ll soon need to either bring him on as an employee, or let him go, if we want to comply with the law.

Matt is also a musician and a band leader—and according to AB 5, he should be considered both an employee and an employer at his gigs now: He’d be an employee of the venue, and the employer of his band mates.

It’s a shit show.

The state and Democratic lawmakers are making a terrible impression on a whole lot of young residents as a result of AB 5—and who knows what future electoral consequences this may have?

As always, thanks for reading the Coachella Valley Independent. Feel free to email me with feedback—and be sure to pick up the March 2020 print edition.

Published in Editor's Note

Much has been written about Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), the legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year that redefines how California companies can hire freelancers and contract workers—and much of that writing has focused on Lyft and Uber drivers, as well as freelance writers, who have been hit hard by the law.

But there's another, less-discussed group of people whose livelihoods are being threatened by AB 5: freelance musicians.

As the law is written, a musician hired for a one-off gig at a club or restaurant could be considered both an employee and an employer, if he or she put together a combo for the occasion. A musician hiring a producer once to help out on an album also would be considered an employer. And if musicians perform paid work at houses of worship on a regular basis, according to AB 5 as it stands now, a church or synagogue would have to make them employees.

While almost everyone agrees a “carve out” needs to be made in AB 5’s language to allow small and non-union musicians to make a living, that has not happened yet—and musicians and club owners are grappling not only with the bill’s prohibitions, but also its confusing language. Many professions are exempted, including “fine artists,” but the definition of “fine artist” isn’t clear legally.

In a recent interview with KQED-TV, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego lawmaker who authored AB 5, said, “Obviously, a muralist is a fine artist. A musician is a fine artist.”

But Gonzalez’s words don’t translate into law.

“I think it will be very hard to find anyone complying with this law as it stands,” says Barry Martin, aka DJ Baz, a music promoter who stages the weekly Jazzville Palm Springs series at Wang’s in the Desert in Palm Springs. “And should any enforcement begin, thousands of musicians will lose their gigs across the state and not be booked again until an exemption for musicians is in place.”

Ari Herstand, a Southern California musician and author (How to Make It In the New Music Business) who has covered AB 5’s effects on his blog Ari’s Take (www.aristake.com), is more blunt.

“It’s a shit show with all the powerful organizations and unions,” Herstand wrote in January. “And while they are throwing their proverbial dicks around breaking out their rulers, thousands of independent, working musicians are suffering. We do not have time to wait for them to agree on where the commas should be placed (in carve-out language).”

Herstand began a petition on change.org urging the Legislature to enact an exemption for musicians. As of this writing, it has nearly 168,000 signatures

“If (AB 5) stands,” he says, “I figure I’ll lose about $6,000 a year. I’d have to carry workers’ comp insurance (and) have to enlist a payroll company, and file payroll taxes per employee—I may contract 50 people during the year. And I would be considered both an employer and an employee at the exact same gig.”

Josiah Gonzalez is one of the members of popular Coachella Valley band Avenida Music, which plays at parties, weddings and other events. He plays keyboards and does most of the band’s booking and management. The band has been speaking out about the dangers of AB 5 on its social-media accounts.

Gonzalez said that right now, a lot of people don’t know about the language in AB 5. For example, Avenida plays regularly at casinos, which, Gonzalez says, “don’t have dedicated music people. You get hired by a food-and-bev person or assistant manager.”

The more word spreads about AB 5, the worse things will get—until the Legislature fixes the mess it created.

“Beyond the financial, legal and administrative mess created by AB 5, communities face even more profound threats from the new law,” wrote Brendan Rawson, the executive director of San Jose Jazz, in a commentary for the CalMatters. “Segments of our cultural and civic life are at risk of going out of existence.”

Rawson wrote: “AB 5 unnecessarily complicates other work arrangements found in community cultural programming such as small festivals, neighborhood street fairs, parades and summer music series in our local parks.”

Indeed, non-Equity theaters and dance companies are grappling with the implications of AB 5. Island City Opera in Alameda has canceled its planned March performance of the opera The Wreckers over concerns with paying temporary musicians, and Herstand says he knows of a production of West Side Story where the singers now will perform to recordings rather than the live music that was planned, putting more than a dozen musicians out of a gig.

For what it’s worth, Tamara Stevens, executive administrator of the Palm Springs Hospitality Association (PSHA), wrote in an email: “PSHA has not taken a position on AB 5.”

Herstand was part of a coalition that met with Assemblywoman Gonzalez to explain the musicians’ dilemma. While he initially wrote on his blog that he was encouraged by the December meeting, when the Independent spoke to him for this story in February, he expressed concern.

“I think Assemblywoman Gonzalez is pretty much dogmatic about her position; she doesn’t seem willing to budge on this,” he says.

Several members of the Legislature have crafted new carve-out bills for a variety of professions, including for freelance writers, sign-language interpreters, and newspaper-delivery drivers. SB 881, authored by state Sen. Brian Jones, for instance, would exempt musicians and make many other tweaks to the law.

But Herstand says that the makeup of that particular bill’s sponsors—Jones and nine other signatories all are Republicans—may doom its prospects.

“A bill in a Democratic state like California needs Democratic backers,” Herstand says, “and Democrats will not buck the unions behind this.”

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Gonzalez is touting upcoming carve-outs for freelance writers, but said in a Feb. 6 tweet that musicians still will have to wait a bit. “We are still pushing hard on industry and worker representatives to reach agreement on language regarding musicians,” she tweeted. “We plan to address the unique situation regarding musicians in the next round of amendments by March. We are working hard on musicians issues!”

While politicians tussle and posture over AB 5, it’s independent musicians like Josiah Gonzalez and the members of Avenida Music who suffer.

“Most of the bands are just oblivious to (AB 5),” he says, “but if they really crack down on this, it could really affect our gigs.”

Kevin Allman is a California-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinallman.

Published in Local Issues

Anthony Rendon arrived feeling a little punchy. At 51, the speaker of the California Assembly is adjusting to life as a new dad—and his 3-month-old baby hadn’t slept well the night before.

“She was up at 1:30, 3, 4:30. And then once she woke up at 4:30, she didn’t fall asleep until 6,” Rendon said. “So that’s my life.”

The Los Angeles politician—sporting a black hoodie and Converse high tops as he sat for an interview in his district office—assumed one of California’s most-powerful roles in the spring of 2016. As the Assembly’s Democratic leader, he’s negotiated $200 billion state budgets with two Senate leaders and two governors. He’s overseen a political operation that resulted in Democrats winning a historically huge majority of more than 75 percent.

And yet around the Capitol, he’s probably best known for his low profile, rarely calling press conferences and opting not to author any bills so his members can share the spotlight. His style—at turns cerebral and self-deprecating—is unusual in a statehouse that attracts its share of showboats.

So it was with a certain understatement, as well as exhaustion, that Rendon, clutching a cup of coffee, shared his expectations for 2020—in the Capitol, at the ballot and for his family. Here are condensed highlights from our December interview.

So who gives a better baby present, Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown?

I like Jerry Brown very much. And I’m not asking that he send a present, but he didn’t. Gavin Newsom and his wife sent a very nice gift. … It was a onesie. … It says “One California” or something. Get it? It’s a play on words. It’s a onesie. It’s very cute. And I meant to take a picture of her in it and send it to him, but I haven’t done that. I’m glad you reminded me.

You’re the first speaker in a while to have a young family. Recent legislative leaders either didn’t have children or had much older children. Do you think having a baby is going to impact your ability to do such a demanding job?

It impacts all aspects of my life. I think I’ll have to make adjustments, for sure. … Being speaker is a demanding job. And I’m sure being a parent is a demanding job as well. So something will have to give.

March of 2020 will mark four years that you’ve been assembly speaker. And if you remain speaker until the end of the legislative session—

That’s ominous.

… You’ll become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown. So, any fears of restless colleagues who might mount a challenge?

It’s not something that’s on my mind right now. I haven’t heard any rumblings. 

Your caucus grew a lot in 2018 because of the seats you successfully flipped. Then it got even bigger when GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties. What was that like to have a Republican in your caucus? Is it as easy as just switching jerseys and joining your team, or is there any awkwardness in having a former opponent as a colleague?

It probably sounds ludicrous … but I was amazed how seamless it was. When Brian announced that he was switching, I had a meeting with the caucus and said, “Hey, this is what he wants to do, and how do you guys feel about it?” And I almost felt like I was overpreparing them, because they were all like, “Cool.” (Even as a Republican) Brian voted with us so often.

More recently, local Assemblyman Chad Mayes left the Republican Party as well. He’s now registered with no party preference. But if he wanted to caucus with the Democrats, would you allow it?

I don’t know. I’d probably have to ask the caucus how they felt about it. He doesn’t seem to want to. I saw him (a few days ago). He feels pretty liberated to not be a member of a party. … I don’t think he wants to become a Democrat, and I don’t think he wants to caucus with us. I don’t think he wants to caucus with Republicans (either).

How are you feeling about your Assembly races in 2020? Do you think you can hold your 61-seat mega-majority?

I have mixed feelings about it. The weather forecast is complicated. On the one hand, there’s a lot of very anti-Republican sentiment. … With Donald Trump on the ballot, you have to think that we’re going to do very well. That being said, we also know that there is very much an anti-incumbent tendency out there, and we just have more incumbents than they do. People are very angry around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness. We see that polling everywhere, in every district throughout the state. So I don’t think we can say, “Democrat X is running against Donald Trump” or “running against a Republican.” We have to tell a story about what we’ve done. … Just railing against Donald Trump, I don’t think that’s fair to Californians to do that.

Why?

I’m really impressed with the work that we’ve done … and also because … we have candidates who have incredible qualifications and have had incredible life experiences. You take someone like Thu-Ha Nguyen (challenging GOP Assemblyman Tyler Diep) in Orange County, who’s a cancer researcher, and a mom, and a council member. And I think to reduce all of that to just, “She’s battling Donald Trump,” I think is overly simplistic. And it’s also very—it’s a short horizon. I mean, Donald Trump will be gone someday, and the party needs to stand for something. And we will.

So how do you feel about Gavin Newsom’s approach? He’s been very much framing himself as the leader of the resistance and fighting Trump all the time. How do you feel about that?

That works for him. A lot of what he does is about the resources from the federal government, and that’s a different dynamic. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in. But I get why he does it. … Whether it’s high speed rail funds or water—that’s very real for (him).

How do you feel about the landscape for the Democratic presidential nomination?

I haven’t been following it all that closely. … I want to be supportive of a Democrat who could beat Donald Trump.

You were a Kamala Harris supporter early on. So with her out of the race, have you picked a candidate you’re going to endorse?

No … I don’t know if I will. I might. I’ve had Mr. Steyer call me, and the South Bend mayor called me. (Rendon turned to his staff member and asked to be reminded of his name.)

A lot of the policies the Democratic candidates are proposing are things that California is already doing to some degree—like $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, carbon pricing and paid family leave. Do you think that the nation wants to be more like California?

The California label is probably not a good thing in a lot of parts of the country for whatever reason. But I think in terms of policy, the state certainly has a story to tell. So I’m not surprised that some of our ideas are being put up there as models to follow. … We’re proud of our economy, and we’re proud of the $15 minimum wage, and all the stuff we’ve done on the environment. And at the same time, how many tens of thousands of people go to sleep every night in this state without a home? And we have long-lasting water problems, quality and supply. We have too many people in prison. So I think it’s important for us as Democrats to be honest. And it is very difficult to do that in election years.

On criminal-justice issues, California has been on a long course of reversing tough-on-crime policies of the past. Do you think the state has gone too far in any way? Or if you think we haven’t gone far enough, what’s left to do?

In our House, we passed the (parolee right to) vote bill. (ACA 6 would allow parolees to vote after they complete their prison sentences, if voters approve.) I’d like to see that get on the ballot and have Californians take a look at that. What we ask for in our society is for people who’ve done bad things to do their time and then become engaged citizens. And as long as you’re not allowing that, then you’re not living up to your principles.

A few months ago, my colleague Dan Morain wrote about the murder your brother-in-law John Lam was an accomplice to 16 years ago. Jerry Brown reduced his sentence, and Gavin Newsom made a final call allowing his release. Have you had any insights on criminal justice issues from this experience in your family?

I have. He was released on Oct. 10th. He’s in transitional housing. And you know, my wife and I are very fortunate. We have resources at our disposal. I’ve been on paternity leave. My wife is self-employed, so we have a lot of time that we can spend with him, and we take him out a lot. … When I pick him up, I sometimes look at the other guys at the home and wonder to what extent they don’t have those things, and what that means for them moving forward. So in the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the things that we do or don’t do after (someone is released from prison) and the hurdles that people have. That is something that I’ve taken away from the experience.

Looking ahead, what are your priorities for 2020?

No surprise to you or anybody, wildfires and housing affordability/homelessness issues are on everyone’s mind—this sort of unresolved, you know, enigma, that is PG&E and where that goes moving forward.

So on wildfire, what can you do?

It’s a very good question. People (in Northern California) are constantly talking about insurance issues. 

What about on homelessness?

A lot of what we want to do is relating to oversight of the money and the opportunities that we’ve given to local governments. … It’s incumbent upon cities to do something, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide oversight.

Do you anticipate the Legislature responding to pressure from initiatives that are in the process of qualifying for the ballot? Like the challenge from Uber and Lyft on AB 5, the new California law that treats more contract workers as employees—would you pass a law to keep that off the ballot?

I don’t believe we would. I felt as though we were doing a tremendous favor to a lot of people by even addressing that. We could have easily just let it go and let the court ruling stand. I have no interest in getting involved in that. I think we’ve been quite good to those people.

A few years ago, there was a push to do a constitutional amendment asking voters to repeal the Proposition 209 ban (from 1996) on affirmative action. Given the 2020 electorate, do you want that to be something the Legislature does, give that to the voters this year?

I’m glad you brought that up. … I would like to see 209 repealed. That being said, if we are going to get something on the ballot, and get it passed in November, from a political standpoint, it almost seems too late. You have to raise a lot of money. You have to have your ducks lined up. And I haven’t seen that from any of the activist groups that have been talking about that. It’s disappointing that people sometimes seem to want to jam things on the ballot. Good intentions, but (they) don’t go through the very simple political steps of raising money and having a proper coalition to get something passed by voters.

What about a repeal of the death penalty? Would you want to see the Legislature put that on the ballot for the people?

I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for a long time. … But as long as it’s not being carried out (because Newsom halted executions by executive order), there doesn’t seem to be a rush.

Anything you hope will go differently this year in working with Gov. Newsom?

There were some bumps in the road with Gavin early on. At the time, it was hard to contextualize. It was just irritating. But when you think about it, yeah, it makes sense: It’s a whole new team, whole new relationships. So I think things will get better. And I don’t know that we necessarily need to tweak any individual thing. I think it’s just learning people’s tendencies and learning how people like to communicate

One last question: How do you feel about having another Anthony Rendon in L.A.? (A Major League Baseball player by the same name recently left the Washington Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels.)

It’s a lot. After my wife and I had a baby, our first date with a baby sitter was the night he hit a big homerun in Game 6 of the World Series. And I got 69 texts … That includes people who sent texts saying, “Oh, aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another Anthony Rendon text?” That’s included in that total. Just for the record.

What were most of the texts saying?

“Oh, you hit a home run tonight! Ha ha ha.” Oh, so clever. I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve literally been following this guy since he was Freshman of the Year at Rice University. I know he exists. I don’t need another freakin’ person to tell me that he exists.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Julie Su wants the world’s fifth-largest economy to remain a global juggernaut. To do so, California’s labor secretary acknowledges, the state will need to position its workforce for the jobs of the future—a catchall term that encompasses not only the promise of innovation, but also the dystopian threat of increased income disparity.

Economists project massive upheaval from disparate forces such as automation and an aging population. California’s challenge, as Su sees it, is to roll with those disruptions while making sure jobs here continue to pay a living wage, offer worker protections and accommodate working families.

In short, she wants the future of work to bridge today’s wealth gap. A labor and civil rights attorney—and past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant—Su has been leading the Future of Work Commission alongside Chief Economic Adviser Lenny Mendonca and Senior Adviser on Higher Education Lande Ajose. They have been hosting meetings across the state with the goal of coming up with a new social compact for workers.

Meanwhile, Su—whose full job title is secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency—has committed to a new future-of-work department to execute the commission’s findings and recommendations. In an interview, edited here for length, she spoke about the commission’s goals and how she plans to enforce California’s own recent workplace disruption—the new worker classification law known as AB 5.

What are we looking at in terms of future of work? And why should Californians care about this topic?

We hear so much about how A.I. (artificial intelligence) is going to destroy jobs, such as how a robot will take the place of humans. But the commission was formed under the principle that there’s nothing inevitable about the shape of our future economy. We can, through policies and interventions … come together to reverse the 40-year trend of growing income inequality and poverty.

What’s your understanding of the distribution of wages right now, whether it’s gender, race or geography?

Over one-third of working people in California make less than $15 an hour. And a full 20 percent of those earning less than $15 have a college degree or some college education, which forces us to think about the connection between education and job opportunity, right?

It’s not enough to address the cost of things; we also have to address how much people actually make, so we have to focus on the quality of jobs.

Over the last 40 years, productivity has increased by 259 percent, but wages only by 11.6 percent, which means that we have a massive distribution problem. The productivity gains are going somewhere, but they’re not going to working people. And that’s creating not just income disparity, but also wealth disparity.

And the racial wealth gap is astounding. The median wealth of black families who have a college education is below the median wealth of white families who do not have a college education. Those are the problems we need to solve.

So what are examples of solutions?

I don’t want to pre-suppose what the commission’s going to come up with. I think that there are some policies, strategies and ideas that have been tried and we just need to expand them. We’re looking here and elsewhere in the world. What lessons do they have for California? And then, I think that there are ideas and solutions that sitting here today we have not yet imagined.

Can you at least tease me with an idea?

For example, at the first meeting, the commission had a panel of four workers, and one had a union job where she worked as a janitor. The union job actually helps to preserve her security, but that job was also subcontracted out, and when it was, she’s lost certain things like a retirement benefit.

So clearly, one part of the answer is: What is the role of union? And how do we ensure that unions are strong and can organize and, given changes in the economy, are supported in new ways of organizing? There’s data that shows that having a union does more to ensure higher wages than even having a college degree.

The second was a warehouse worker who talked about how he basically felt like a number. Automation was used … to set a high level of surveillance, and he felt expendable. So what ways can technology innovate, not just for the benefit of the shareholders and consumers, but for the benefit of working people?

Then the other two workers who spoke were in workplaces, both of whom have received money from the Quality Jobs Fund, a collaboration between the Federal Home Loan (Bank of) San Francisco and the New World Foundation. And the fund was used for capital investments in companies that meet certain job-quality criteria. These two workers both talked about how their jobs allow for a living wage, have flexibility—one of them had a special-needs child and needed to go to appointments—(and) that include benefits, access to training and professional development, and then upward mobility and a chance to build wealth.

All those suggest higher labor costs for employers, though. Is there a point where government then starts to subsidize private industry in order to provide a private-sector worker with better wages? Is that a direction we should contemplate?

I think everything is on the table. What the governor has charged the commission with is to think really boldly, not assume that anything that’s already in place has to be here or that anything we haven’t yet seen is impossible to create.

In parallel to the commission, we’re also creating a future-of-work department under the labor agency. We’re going to create a department that will be poised when the commissions has its recommendations to actually execute many of them. That’s how concrete we want to be.

Part of the initial phase of the department is really just to realign existing service inside of government. One of the things that I think is very frustrating to people who try to interact with the government and try to access services, is when we say to you, “not this agency, the next agency.” What I want to do is eliminate the next window problem: “You’re in the wrong line, go to this next line.”

You want to create one line in which people can get what they need when they seek help from the government. It’s not just about creating new legislation and new powers; it’s about taking powers you already have and creating one streamlined, efficient and accessible department.

The governor signed AB 5, the worker-misclassification bills, and it will now take effect in January. I’m wondering what will you and your agency’s role be in enforcing that?

I often say that the instability that working people face—partly because of misclassification—has resulted in the day-labor-ization of our economy. Instead of steady, consistent, reliable work, people end up basically in odd jobs, and you’re hustling all the time, right? So AB 5 is meant to address that kind of misclassification so that we can bring more people who should be under the protection of our labor laws back on that floor.

We’re going to be enforcing both through our wage-claim process, where individuals who feel like they have been misclassified can come and file wage claims. An example of that is we’ve had almost 1,000 cases in the port-trucking industry filed before the labor commissioner that we’ve adjudicated and found millions of dollars owing to truck drivers who have been misclassified.

The other is just doing investigations and audits. That will be on both wages and tax, because AB 5 expands the ABC test that way. So we will be doing investigations and audits so that those who want to comply with the need to reclassify can do so, and those who don’t will understand that’s not the kind of economy we want in California. So we can issue citations and demand both wages and taxes and other kinds of penalties.

Do you expect to investigate Uber and Lyft?

We do not talk about who we will investigate or the fact we are investigating. I do want to say that misclassification did not arise when the gig economy came into being. And it will not be ended by that. We also are hopeful that there are businesses who will join us in this administration who are committed to combating misclassification and also find new ways for workers to organize.

There are some workers who have been excluded from federal protections, and California has a really unique opportunity to bring them into the fold and think about ensuring that they have true union protection working side by side with labor and businesses who are interested in doing that.

Did you have conversations with Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates or any other entities?

We did. I think we always want to work with—whether it’s business or labor—on trying to solve some of these complex and intractable problems. As the governor said when he signed AB 5, we want to continue to be open to those conversations and whatever possibilities they might bring about for trying to improve working conditions and the lives of the drivers in California.

Why wasn’t a third way accomplished in the last legislative cycle? Why couldn’t a compromise be done?

That’s a good question. We wanted to make sure we were working with folks who wanted to talk about this, but I don’t think there was a deadline in our minds for that. These ongoing issues; they’re very complex. And when we talk about creating a voice for workers, that it’s really a voice premised on unions—like a genuine right to a union on the job. If we can accomplish something, it will set a model for the country. 

What’s realistic for the state or local government to stem this growth in wealth inequality? You’re setting up high expectations here. We have a capitalistic society, so what’s doable here?

We would rather set really high standards for ourselves. And if we cannot reach them all, we at least challenge ourselves to give it everything we’ve got. We are looking at this from all angles. There may be some simple things that we can do. Some of them are building off the great innovation and talents of people in California already. Are there models we can replicate and support and share so that people who want to do this right don’t have to invent it from scratch? At the first meeting, we talked about tax law, about social structures.

We don’t have an end date for the commission’s work. We have monthly meetings from now until April. We will also be issuing a report in May that’s a part of the governor’s executive order. We’d like to make sure we engage with a broader segment of Californians around what whatever the recommendations are, and that could be academic institutions, philanthropy, worker centers, the tech industry and business. 

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Do you freelance in California? Have a side hustle? Drive trucks? Work construction? Do nails? Work on political campaigns? Then you should be paying attention to a major employment fight coming to a head in Sacramento.

In the coming weeks, the state Senate will begin hearings on a bill that will make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors, officially codifying a sweeping 2018 California Supreme Court decision. The so-called “Dynamex” bill, supported by organized labor and named for the court case, has made headlines for threatening the on-demand business model made popular by the likes of Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates.

Less discussed, however, is the extent to which Assembly Bill 5 could sweep up some 2 million workers across industries far from the sharing economy and tech sectors, from truck drivers and general contractors to nail salons, strippers and perhaps even the freelance writers for this newspaper. The proposal has so unsettled mainstream businesses that they’ve banded together with sharing economy disruptors to run an “I’m Independent” campaign.

The legislation would rewrite the rules for when a worker is deemed an official employee, upending longstanding employment practices by winemakers, private investigators, music schools and other enterprises.

“Does AB 5 have very wide repercussions? Yes, that’s what makes the negotiations very complicated,” said labor-rights attorney Bill Sokol, who teaches employment law at San Francisco State University and is not a part of the negotiations.

California has long led the nation on employment practices, and AB 5 may be just the beginning as policymakers wrestle with updating labor codes in today’s app-for-hire world. Though the high court decision clearly raised the bar for treating workers as independent contractors rather than full employees, the devil is in the details that will be spelled out in the pending legislation.

AB 5 is being lobbied heavily both by business advocates and by organized labor, which seeks to ensure that gig-economy workers have workplace protections, including the right to collective bargaining. It has also put Gov. Gavin Newsom, who wants to be viewed as an ally to both labor and tech, in an awkward position.

“Everything is up for grabs,” Sokol said. “There’s no way to predict who’s going to end up with what. But labor recognizes that the American workplace they have traditionally organized—those worker relationships—have changed, and the laws have not kept up with them.”


Labor groups led by the 2 million-member California Labor Federation have united behind the proposal to limit the use of independent workers. Their contention: The gig economy has opened the door to mass exploitation of low-wage workers, a trend that is worsening income inequality.

Too many employers misclassify employees in order to cut costs, the unions argue, and strong curbs on the use of independent contractors, who aren’t eligible for many of the benefits and workplace protections mandated for regular employees, would slow that. Those curbs would also make it easier to reach groups, such as general contractors, that have long been difficult to organize.

But business advocates warn the change would dramatically ramp up labor costs in California, and have dire consequences for the state’s economy. In some sectors, such as ridesharing, widespread contracting isn’t even the long-term business model—it’s just an intermediate phase on the way to automation. Uber or Lyft, both headquartered in San Francisco, might stop operating in California altogether, they say.

Their hope is to carve out a third way that would allow employers to grant some benefits without having to categorize workers as full employees.

“We have a completely different economy,” said Jennifer Barrera, executive vice president at California Chamber of Commerce. “We have a huge group of individuals who really value their flexibility and control over their own schedule, and I don’t think it has to be one or the other.”

The California Supreme Court decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles dealt with a same-day courier service that, to save money, had converted all its employees to independent contractors. A former employee claimed the shift was a Labor Code violation, and the litigation that ensued ended up reinterpreting a longstanding test for classifying workers. The ruling instead established a three-part test for certifying independent contractors, with the highest hurdle being that the work performed must be outside the core of the company’s business.

Even though the Dynamex decision is already law, labor representatives say many companies have been flouting it. AB 5 would ensure that workers would not have to file suit on a case by case basis to seek enforcement.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that they’re currently being cheated out of, frankly,” said Steve Smith, with the Labor Federation. “With respect to Uber and Lyft, it’s the exploitation they subject their workers to on a daily basis. Many of these workers are not receiving minimum wage; they are misclassified as contractors when they actually should be considered employees, meaning there’s a whole host of benefits they’re not getting that they should get like everyone else.”

In steering more people to employee status, the bill would force companies to offer basic worker protections such as guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, unemployment and disability insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave and family leave. Workers could also get reimbursed for mileage and maintenance of their vehicles.

The state estimates it loses about $7 billion a year in payroll-tax revenue due to worker misclassification that could be supporting schools, roads and other public services. And by avoiding unemployment insurance taxes and workers’ compensation premiums, businesses shift the burden to the state when workers get laid off, get sick or get injured on the job.

“These billion-dollar companies can complain, but we have to ask ourselves as taxpayers: Should we subsidize their business by subsidizing their workers?” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a former labor organizer from San Diego who is author of AB 5. “That’s what happens when you don’t adequately compensate workers.”

She dismisses the idea that Uber and Lyft will flee the fifth-largest economy in the world. More likely, the lawmaker predicts, Uber and Lyft will make the changes required by law, because there’s a massive market for transporting individuals and goods in California. If they can’t manage it, she says, then someone else will.


Gonzalez’s bill is triggering pushback in part because the impact of the high court ruling is far broader than many Californians expected. Gonzalez says she’s heard, for instance, from newspaper publishers who want to keep using freelance journalists and beauty salons that rely on nail technicians. She’s even rattled folks in her own world of politics, because her bill would reclassify campaign workers as employees, not contractors.

Chris Shimoda, vice president of government affairs with the California Trucking Association, says trucking has been a pathway for people without advanced degrees to make more money. In fact, about 80 percent of drivers in the industry have a high school education or less, he said. But if firms are required to employ their own drivers, independent drivers who own their own $150,000 Class 8 heavy duty trucks may not be able to find work.

“We all agree there should be a pathway, especially for the blue-collar working class to rise up the economic ladder,” Shimoda said. “It’s just: What are the rules for the labor and employment law side of things? If there are specific things that have been abused, then what are those, and how do we reconcile that through this bill?”

As his association works to ease the potential impact of AB 5 on those drivers, the trucking industry has challenged the Dynamex decision in federal court, arguing that federal laws governing motor carriers pre-empt the state test.

Peter Tateishi, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of California, which represents construction firms, said the bill would disadvantage small businesses, many of which are women-owned and minority-owned firms, that subcontract with builders, because contractors won’t be able to get outside help.

As for Uber and Lyft, the rideshare companies have sought compromise and held back-channel negotiations with the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union. The Labor Federation, however, remains committed to full employment status for rideshare workers. As a result, the gig economy companies have sought support in the court of public opinion.

In an open letter, Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi and Lyft co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer proposed maintaining their drivers’ freelance status but granting access to some employee benefits such as paid time off and retirement accounts. The executives, whose combined worth is over $1 billion, offered to form a new driver association to advocate for the drivers’ interests.

“We are public companies that tens of millions of people rely on for mobility and work,” they wrote. “If there ever was a time for new policies, it’s now.”


This week, the “I’m Independent” coalition led Uber and Lyft drivers around the Capitol to meet with lawmakers and staff to voice their desire to remain freelancers.

“I’m very offended that they would think they’re doing us a favor by calling us employees,” said Vivian Mallory, a 60-year-old Uber driver in Sacramento. “We want better rates, and we want more opportunities for benefits. I think we’re not against the bill being passed, but I think we want changes in the language.”

Mallory says she’s strategic about picking up longer rides that pay more and was able to average $4,800 a month last year driving. Another Uber driver, James Kyle, 58, of Roseville, said he needs to remain an independent contractor, because he works seasonally at charity golf tournaments.

“They’re taking the fun away from it,” Mallory said.

AB 5 supporters counter that drivers will continue to maintain a flexible schedule, because rideshare companies, like any employer, can pay wages based on the number of hours worked.

On the other side are drivers like 62-year-old Ann Glatt, who joined the Gig Workers Rising movement after noticing her share of fares declining over time with Lyft. She says she’s lucky to make $700 a week and would like to see changes to the way the rideshare companies categorize their drivers.

“Teachers are in unions. We’re not able to unionize because we’re independent contractors,” Glatt said.

She added that the labels put on drivers can be misleading.

“Uber and Lyft are not transportation companies—they are platforms. So that makes us customers, and the passengers are the end user. But really it kinda just means Uber and Lyft are not responsible for basic labor standards for people,” she said.

After speaking to CALmatters, Glatt said she stopped driving Lyft because she wasn’t able to make ends meet.

Requests for exemptions have so far succeeded in some sectors. Gonzalez has agreed to leave doctors, insurance agents, real estate agents, hair stylists/barbers who hold a booth rental permit, dentists, architects, engineers and accountants out of the law.

But business interests are pressing for more. Barrera said CalChamber would like to carve out licensed occupations, from court reporters to family therapists. While the author is committed to sorting through more positions, Gonzalez said the exemptions will need to stop at some point.

“I have a driver’s license,” she said. “That doesn’t make me a business owner.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics