Proposal would end California cap on freelancer assignments

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California Freelance Journalists

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, talks with other assembly members on the Assembly floor at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Gonzalez has proposed an amendment to Assembly Bill 5 — which requires many independent contractors to be re-classified as employees with benefits — that removes the submission cap but also mandates that freelancers cannot replace regular employees. (Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Bowing to intense criticism, the author of a sweeping new California labor law now wants to amend the statute to eliminate any cap on the number of assignments freelance journalists can take.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said she will seek to remove a 35-submission limit on the number of articles, photos and other assignments freelance media workers can produce for an employer.

Two freelancer groups suing over the law on free speech grounds will continue their legal case in federal court in Los Angeles, where they are asking for immediate relief from the law's restrictions.

If the measure passes the Assembly and Senate, it wouldn't take effect until next January. "At that point there'll be far more people out of work than anybody would like," said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel at the National Press Photographers Association, which jointly filed a lawsuit against the law known as AB5 last December with the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The law has affected freelance writers and bloggers who often go beyond the 35-assignment limit. Before the law even took effect on Jan. 1, digital sports website SB Nation, owned by Vox Media, said it would end its use of 200 California freelancers.

The groups suing also want a ban on freelancers shooting video for employers to be lifted. Gonzalez's office did not say whether the office would consider an exemption for video.

Minutes before Gonzalez's proposal was unveiled, Republican Assembly members failed in a long-shot bid to suspend the law through forcing an unusual floor vote on a repeal bill stuck in committee.

Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley's motion, which required two-thirds approval to suspend the Assembly's rules, was voted down 55-15. The motion drew no support from Democrats and was a sign of desperation among critics of AB5, which has disrupted the business model of gig-economy giants and affected a slew of independent workers like writers and musicians.

The AB5 law makes it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees, who are entitled to minimum wage and benefits such as worker’s compensation. It established the nation’s strictest test, but also exempted certain industries from the law, like graphic designers and marketing writers, said Jim Manley, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the two freelancer groups suing.

“The government can't have one set of rules for journalists that are harsher than for other kinds of speech," Manley said. There is a March 9 hearing in that federal case.

Gonzalez had said earlier this month that her office would be proposing changes in response to criticism. Her spokeswoman, Samantha Gallegos, said it will release a measure affecting musicians “in the next couple of weeks.”

“This is the first round of amendments,” Gallegos wrote in an email. “We do expect to continue making amendments as the legislation moves through the process.”

Industry leaders Uber, Lyft and Doordash are funding a ballot initiative campaign to exclude its drivers from the law while giving new benefits like health care coverage. The initiative is likely to qualify for the November ballot after campaigners said on Thursday afternoon it had collected 1 million signatures.

Kiley called for the law to be "suspended" while lawmakers work on fixes to address the affect on dozens of industries. He pointed out even proponents of the law like Gonzalez admit tweaks are needed.

"Frankly, I have never been more ashamed of this legislative body than I have been today," Kiley said in an interview.