In a major victory for some workers, California voters passed Proposition 22 in November, adding rideshare and delivery drivers to the growing list of occupations exempted from Assembly Bill 5. Yet, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the state and wreaks havoc on California’s economy, many other gig workers continue to fight for their livelihoods.
Last year, California lawmakers passed a disastrous gig worker law, AB5, which required most independent contractors to be reclassified as employees. The law was intended to help independent contractors by granting them employment benefits like healthcare and unemployment insurance. However, many independent contractors value the flexibility of gig work over these benefits. In fact, the most recent data from the Bureau for Labor Statistics suggest that 79 percent of independent contractors prefer their work arrangement to traditional jobs.
AB5 was, in part, targeted at rideshare and delivery companies like Uber and Lyft, but ultimately ensnared a wide range of workers, including freelance journalists, musicians, and event planners. Initially, lawmakers provided exemptions in AB5 for some politically powerful professional occupations, including lawyers, accountants, and physicians. After the law was implemented, the legislature scrambled to exempt additional occupations hurt by its terms.
Nonetheless, many gig workers continue to struggle under the increasingly messy law. Now voters have taken matters into their own hands and passed Prop. 22 to allow app-based drivers to be classified as independent contractors. Critics argue that the new standards in Prop. 22 are insufficient. For example, while Prop. 22 requires that workers be paid at least 120 percent of the local minimum wage, they will only earn that wage during “engaged time,” critics note. In other words, workers will be paid a higher wage, but only while they are completing a ride or delivery. Likewise, not all drivers will receive the health benefits promised by the initiative. Only workers driving more than 15 hours a week would be eligible to receive benefits, and those hours are also calculated using “engaged time.” That means drivers would likely need to spend much more time on the road to qualify.
Despite these critiques, the new standards are actually a much more appropriate fit for the industry and provide greater flexibility for drivers. App-based drivers typically set their own hours, with many choosing to drive as a “side gig” on top of their traditional jobs. Classifying them as full-time employees limits that freedom. Prop. 22 calls for providing benefits for workers that want to drive full-time, but still lends flexibility to those who only wish to drive a few hours a week.
The tragedy of this debate is that Prop. 22 proves that there are more sensible ways to solve what some groups see as problems with the so-called gig economy. And while Prop. 22 was a victory for app-based drivers, it does nothing for the thousands of other independent contractors in other industries also negatively impacted by AB5.
Prop. 22 and other exceptions the state legislature has made to AB5 are steps in the right direction, but this piecemeal approach is a slow process that continues to leave far too many workers behind. A lot of Californians are still hurt by the law and many are without work, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than slicing away at the fatally-flawed law one small piece at a time, state lawmakers should step up and repeal AB5 altogether.
Surely, it’s clear now that much smaller and more targeted legislation aimed at addressing issues in specific occupations would make a lot more sense than the sweeping edicts in AB5. It’s great that California voters passed the sensible reforms included in Prop. 22, but let’s not forget about all of the other workers who continue to be hurt by Assembly Bill 5.
A version of this column previously appeared in the Orange County Register.