by Lori Arnold
For the better part of a year, workers across the country—and the globe—have discovered a little secret that freelance writers have known for years: It is possible to work from home and earn an income. It’s possible to not just survive, but to also thrive.
When COVID-19 restrictions forced most Americans to work from home last spring to accommodate stay-at-home orders, many scrambled to create workspaces in bedrooms, dining rooms, closets and sheds. They struggled to establish boundaries even as their children began distance learning. (For a terrific resource on working in your jammies, check out this e-book, The Joy of Working at Home, by four Evangelical Press Association freelancers.)
But those of us who are established freelance writers were already well entrenched, thanks to laptops and the Internet. We’ve managed to cut the employment cord by using cell phones, Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangout for interviews. We publish with InDesign and QuarkXPress, and keep all the details straight with Trello and Redbooth. Each of these advances has completely revolutionized the act of gathering and telling stories.
I often marvel at the opportunities to practice my craft. There’s never been a better time to be a freelance writer—technically speaking—and I was well positioned to meet the shelter-in-place demands to stay at home without interrupting the income stream.
Except . . . I live in California.
In January 2020, two months before coronavirus infiltrated our vocabulary, California implemented a new law aimed at so-called “gig” workers. Gig is a clever and broad-based moniker for independent workers. Think of musicians who hire out for entertainment gigs.
In essence, the new law removes the free from freelancer as the government seeks to control the who and how of our work. The new reality is: There is no freedom in freelancing.
The nexus for AB5 was a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling requiring employers meet a three-prong test to use independent contractors. Another factor was complaints of unfair labor conditions, most notably by drivers for ridesharing giants Uber and Lyft.
Convinced that all California freelancers needed saving, San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a former union organizer, seized the opportunity to create legislation designed to coax employers into making independent contractors part-time employees by placing significant restrictions on their use. The bill, however, went well beyond transportation services. It impacted videographers, writers, photographers, interpreters, truck drivers, janitors, health care professionals (but not doctors), health aides, performers, and landscape architects. There are special carve-outs for accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, and dozens of other specialized occupations.
Because of the broadness of the bill and its random caps, it’s deeply flawed. California freelance writers, for instance, were suddenly limited to 35 articles per publication annually. In an October 2019 business article for The Hollywood Reporter, Gonzalez addressed the restrictions impacting journalists.
“Was it a little arbitrary? Yeah. Writing bills with numbers like that are a little bit arbitrary,” she confessed to reporter Katie Kilkenny.
The problem with her plan is that news outlets are using independent contractors for a reason. With declining ad revenues and circulation, they can’t afford the cost of salaries and benefits for employees.
The plan backfired.
Although the bill applies only to California businesses, some companies outside the state, fearful of violating the law, also blacklisted freelancers, saying it’s too cumbersome to track the story counts. The fine is steep, $5,000 to $25,000 per infraction. Additionally, according to the Orange County Register, employers can be forced to retroactively cover payroll taxes, overtime pay and other costs.
The Personal Cost
For me, practically, I reached that 35-story limit with my (then) biggest client in April and I was kept from contributing to them until January 2021. The clock starts over in the new year.
It is particularly irksome that the state has decided freelancers are not wise enough to determine the best professional pathway for their families. One lawmaker, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, went so far as to dismiss journalists’ concerns about AB5 by saying they were upset because their “lollipop” was taken from them. (I would argue that, before the state got involved, it was more like “Good & Plenty.”)
While I thrived in corporate work settings for three decades, working for myself allows me the flexibility I need to help with an aging parent, to spend coveted date days with my semi-retired husband, and to maintain my health by spending precious hours each week at the YMCA pool.
But there’s good news. The reaction from the journalism community in California was swift. Bending to pressure, Assemblywoman Gonzalez authored a fixer bill to remove that cap, one of several tweaks to the ill-conceived AB5.
The new fix for writers, AB 2257, passed through the legislature this summer and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law as an urgency measure on Sept. 4, meaning it went into effect immediately. Unfortunately, my client remains skittish and has yet to approve my return to their freelance roster.
National Push in the Works
Why does this matter to freelance writers in America’s other 49 states?
California has long been known as a bellwether state—legislation here usually sweeps across the country. Several other states, including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, are already considering similar laws.
In February, Congress passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, mostly along party lines. H.R. 2474 is a multi-faceted bill that stifles independent contractors while also dismantling right-to-work protections by forcing all employees to fund union activities through dues. The bill got stalled in a Senate committee, but in September Joe Biden tweeted his support.
In an article just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, CNBC reported freelancers nationwide were widely concerned about their livelihoods in light of H.R. 2474. In a February piece for Forbes, Erik Sherman warned the union-sponsored bill was actually hurting the workers they were seeking to protect.
The saving grace for Christian freelancers is that we serve a miracle-making God, one who is bigger and more powerful than government. As is his way, as soon as the state closed one door, God opened another for me through a national ministry that showed great compassion as they waded through the murky elements of AB5. Although it took more than six weeks to maneuver through their legal department, they ultimately decided to take a chance on me. Ponder that. They pursued me in spite of the government-mandated obstacles.
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8
Lori Arnold is a national, award-winning journalist who spent 30-plus years as a writer-editor for both a daily community newspaper and at the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and her work’s been published by Christian Headlines, Cru Inner City, EPA Liaison, LifeWay, Teachers of Vision and Metro Voice.