Journalism Groups Sue California Over Independent Contractor Law

In a lawsuit, the groups argue that California Assembly Bill 5, which limits how much an employer may use freelance workers without classifying them as employees, is an unconstitutional restriction on speech and the media.

Just two weeks before a controversial law affecting gig economy workers is scheduled to take effect in California, the measure was challenged in court by two associations representing freelance journalists.

On Tuesday, the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to invalidate parts of California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5). The law, which goes into effect January 1, redefines who is classified as an employee in the state and extends labor protections and benefits like healthcare, overtime, and minimum wage to many workers formerly considered freelancers or independent contractors.

The law includes a specific limit on the number of articles (35) that any publisher may publish in a year by an individual freelancer before he or she must be classified as an employee. ASJA and NPPA argue that the provision is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech and a free press.

In recent weeks, many employers, including associations, have begun to consider curbing their use of California-based freelancers. Most notably, Vox Media, whose SB Nation network of sports sites was largely managed by freelancers, cut hundreds of contributor positions from its payroll this week.

“When AB5 was signed into law, our members in California were understandably upset,” ASJA President Milton C. Toby told the Los Angeles Times (which also made changes to its employee pool as a result of the law). “Some companies are beginning to not hire or let go of California freelancers in anticipation of the law.”

In a news release, NPPA said its affected members expect to lose 60 to 75 percent of their income from some clients because of the law.

“NPPA members impacted by the law range from retirees who will be losing extra income to midcareer professionals whose journalism clients are part of their overall business model,” NPPA said. “All of the impacted members are experienced journalists, trained in ethics and professional standards, who keep their local community informed on matters of public concern. Their voices will be silenced when the impact of AB5 hits their businesses.”

A 2018 California Supreme Court decision limited how employers in the state could use independent contractors and created a three-part test as to whether a contractor should be classified as a full-time employee. AB5, which codified the decision, included a number of carve-outs for industries such as law and graphic design—but not for journalism, despite a large number of media professionals who prefer to work as freelancers.

In response to the Vox Media news, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who authored the bill, noted in a tweet that the company will add 20 new full-time and part-time employees to take over work formerly done by freelancers, saying this showed that the law was “not all bad.”

NPPA and ASJA is being represented on a pro bono basis by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the LA Times reports.

(DustyPixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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