You don't have to drive for Uber or Lyft to cheer California voters' passage on Tuesday of Proposition 22. It's a stinging rebuke of the state's Assembly Bill 5, or AB5, which tried to force companies using independent contractors to reclassify them as employees, ostensibly to provide them with legal protections, such as a guaranteed minimum wage. In fact, what AB5 did was jeopardize the income of thousands of gig workers and other independent contractors statewide and, by its example, tens of millions of us across the country.
Passing Prop 22, even though its language excludes only companies like Uber and Lyft from AB5, sends the message that such bills should be cautionary tales, not road maps for the future of work.
Many major news stories in the run-up to the Prop 22 vote made it seem like the ballot question was solely a fight between the state of California and tech giants with "on-demand" apps that provide flexible work and services on a mass scale. Uber, Lyft and many of their drivers opposed the bill, with the companies saying they couldn't afford to hire so many employees and the drivers saying they wanted to keep the flexibility of working only when they wanted to work.
At the same time, countless other types of independent contractors found themselves ensnared in AB5, losing clients and sometimes entire livelihoods overnight. Freelance writers, photographers, musicians, fine artists and others in scores of professions had their careers senselessly threatened by the battle that union-backed lawmakers were waging against the tech companies by passing AB5.
Among other things, AB5 outlawed people from working in their chosen fields unless they got exemptions from the law or were onboarded as employees. Without meeting those conditions, writers couldn't sell articles to magazines or newspapers, real estate appraisers couldn't appraise properties for real estate companies, comedians couldn't perform standup sets at comedy clubs, sports coaches couldn't coach games for sports leagues, musicians couldn't play songs onstage at music festivals, lawyers couldn't consult on cases for law firms.
The list of affected professionals goes on and on, which is why California lawmakers had to pass a cleanup bill at the end of August exempting more professions from AB5 (and trying to clarify original, problematic exemptions for careers like mine, freelance writing) after an endless stream of infuriated independent contractors demanded the freedom to keep their careers.
Freelancers never asked for relief from the ills that AB5 purports to cure — because we like our independence and the system that has allowed us to live such creative and flexible lives. Many of us have family, schooling, health or other reasons for preferring to have total control of our schedules.
Many of us also believe that having multiple clients or streams of income is financially safer than having a single employer who can fire us or go belly-up. According to the IRS and the Treasury Department, the largest group of independent contractors in America is in the top quartile of earners. Most of us aren't being exploited, and most of us aren't ride-share drivers. We are hardworking people who are trying to live the American Dream.
And make no mistake: We are the majority. Study after study, including research conducted by the U.S. government, shows that 70 percent to 80 percent of independent contractors wish to remain independent contractors. The most recent study, done this summer, found that 60 percent of independent contractors wouldn't take traditional jobs for any amount of money — even during a pandemic and a recession. We want to keep working the way we are working.
Independent contractors across the country have been watching the chaos of AB5 unfold in California for a year now and have been beating back attempts to enact similar laws in other states. Powerful labor unions, such as the AFL-CIO, a driving force behind AB5, have been pushing for these measures in New Jersey and New York, both of which introduced copycat bills last winter, only for them to face public opposition and fail to advance.
Most outrageous is that, even amid all this pushback, federal politicians have embraced AB5 as a blueprint for the law of the land. Joe Biden wrote on his campaign website that California had "paved the way" with AB5 and promised to make its core components the basis for federal tax, labor and employment law.
Democrats in the House, meanwhile, passed the PRO Act, which includes the same career-killing provisions as AB5, and Democrats in the Senate introduced similar language in the laughably named Worker Flexibility and Small Business Protection Act.
To independent contractors screaming for relief from the devastating effects of AB5, the thought of this shortsighted law spreading like a cancer nationwide is terrifying. All of which is why Californians' voting to pass Prop 22 feels like winning a major battle in a nationwide war that, with any hope, might now finally come to an end.
Independent contractors have spoken. The voters have spoken. It's the labor unions — which can't legally unionize independent contractors— that want laws like AB5, presumably because they believe having more traditional employees in the workforce can help grow their ranks. California's example teaches us that these laws don't create all those traditional jobs. Instead, these laws take existing work away from the independent contractors who are happily now doing it.
The passage of Prop 22 teaches us that if lawmakers won't listen to the valid concerns of independent contractors the easy way, by giving us an equal seat at the table and crafting reasonable legislation that protects us along with traditional employees, they will be forced to listen the hard way, as laws like AB5 are publicly gutted at the ballot box.
So many things are hard enough now. Let's do this one the easy way the next time around.