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Why California's AB5 Freelancer Law is Frightening to Marginalized Voices

This piece was published on October 29, 2019 and is being republished for Women Writers Week.

At the end of last year I made the decision to leave my small Sacramento town and move to Los Angeles. Having been a freelance film critic and pop culture essayist for the last decade, I knew it was time to push things to the next level. I decided to turn what I always assumed was a hobby, believing I’d one day inevitably need a “real job,” into a career. And so far it’s been amazing ... until now. 

Over the last few months there have been rumblings in the freelance community about California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), a bill passed by the California legislature that, in theory, hopes to create clearer definitions between employees and independent contractors. But what was initially meant as a bill to aid Uber and Lyft drivers has dragged in freelance writers due to an imposed cap on how many articles a writer can submit for one specific site. 

A freelancer under AB5 would only be allowed to write 35 articles—articles have an incredibly loose definition—before the site would either be forced to hire the writer as an employee. This article cap, which California State Assemblywoman and voice of AB5 Lorena Gonzalez herself calls “arbitrary,” threatens to not only destroy the digital media landscape, but takes aim at the marginalized people who have found their voice through writing online. 

The fear of AB5 is two-fold, regarding how it’s detrimental to marginalized writers in general and those with disabilities specifically. In our current world of digital media, freelance writers are predominately made up of women, people of color, and those with disabilities. Numerous articles have tackled both the gender and racial divides that continue to separate those in both staff and freelance positions, so it’s hard to separate this new law as a direct attack on those who have the hardest time finding staff writing positions or, as we’ve seen throughout history, solid employment in general. 

But these discussions, as they so commonly do when it comes to diversity and inclusion, often stop or outright ignore the additional struggles of those with disabilities. And when it comes to AB5 with regards to being a disabled writer there are additional considerations and limitations many able-bodied people never stop to think of. It’s not as easy as just getting a day job. On the surface, there’s the nature of the gig economy itself which lets a disabled person get a job without worrying about workplace discrimination. Jobs are already limited due to concerns of liability and conscious and unconscious biases regarding the capabilities of those with disabilities, both physical and mental. 

And that’s all working under the belief that the person will be able to get into the building. Despite the implementation of the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) numerous loopholes remain with regards to making buildings accessible. Major cities, like my home in Los Angeles, have several buildings that are grandfathered in and thus don’t have to be accessible. Stairs and the lack of elevators remain common issues, and ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber, ironically, are still fighting rules that would require greater accessibility for disabled patrons. Never mind those who are, for one reason or another, not able to leave their house and thus getting a job outside the home isn’t possible to begin with. So once AB5 goes into effect, those with disabilities will face greater urgency to take on an additional job to get income, entering a discriminatory world that, unfortunately, remains closed to them.

You might be saying, “What about government resources?” As movies have often taught us with regards to people with disabilities, we’re all independently wealthy, right? Another issue with AB 5 and finding a regular job, even in the writing field, is those same government resources. In this case, I’m talking about SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Commonly called welfare for the disabled, SSI federal income supplement program that helps the blind, aged, or disabled who have no other means of income. SSI also comes with automatic enrollment in a state-sponsored healthcare program. 

Because SSI is funded by the taxes of the American people it comes with a host of regulations for those who take it. When it comes to work it’s make a dollar, take a dollar. For those with any employment, whether full or part-time, they’re required to disclose their income and balance it out with their SSI. So anyone on SSI is only allowed a finite amount of money a month. For example, I worked a part-time job for two years and never made more than $800 a month between my job and SSI. If I made more than that $800 I would be cut off from SSI completely, as my income would be deemed too high. Those cut off from SSI automatically lose their healthcare. 

AB5’s belief that a site will hire its writers rather than risk losing them works for those who can afford to be hired, either full-time or part-time. For those with disabilities, we’re often left to balance out whether the income we’d make would sustain us without our SSI. And if they don’t offer healthcare additional considerations have to be taken into account. Is the money worth having to either pay into an expensive healthcare program or going without?

I never intended on writing about film through a disabled lens, believing that no audience would want to hear my opinions on the subject or, perhaps more accurately, that my disability would become synonymous with my writing. However, writing about the subject and, more importantly, discussing it for various outlets, both big and small, has opened up discussions about where disability fits in media. 

It’s not only allowed me a voice, but has opened me up to a host of disabled advocates, all of whom have tackled the subject in their own way. Where disability can often feel isolating and, as far as the job market is concerned, discriminatory, the ability to make a career out of it is astounding. In a world where the playing field isn’t level, freelance writing is that level playing field. The implementation of AB5 and its 35-article cap would certainly give everyone an equal lack of opportunity, but for disabled writers it would stymie their one outlet for a fulfilling job they can be passionate about. It’s why AB5 is so frightening, because it illuminates the grander flaws in our society that keep those with disabilities limited. 

It’s unclear right now how AB5 will affect freelance writers as so much of it remains vague and ill-defined. But with regards to the most marginalized of people, the disabled, it’s life-threatening. I wouldn’t have the ability to connect with people, convey thoughts they believed no one else understood, working in an office. For disabled writers, we’re not only helping ourselves, we’re speaking for those who have always felt voiceless.

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