Vox Media caused a bit of a stir when they announced plans to lay off 200 freelance writers in preparation for January 1st, when California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) is scheduled to take effect. 

The new law limits companies’ abilities to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees. AB5 was widely seen as a response to perceived abuse of workers by the “gig economy,” specifically companies like Uber and Lyft. 

Vox had previously been effusive in their support of AB5. But it turned out the law’s strict classification of the terms “independent contractor” and “employee” made it, in their own words, “impossible,” for Vox to continue using their current business model. The problems AB5 causes are by no means limited to journalism. More than 1 million workers in California will be directly affected by it, with many likely to lose their job rather than gain full time employment.

The writers who are being terminated wrote primarily for SB Nation, a division of Vox that focuses on sports coverage. AB5 mandates that a freelance writer who publishes more than 35 pieces per year for a given site must be classified as an employee. Because SB Nation is primarily a blog-style, high-volume website, they were never going to be able to comply with such a provision.

Possibly in response to the Vox situation, the American Society for Journalists and Authors (ASJA) filed a lawsuit against California on December 17. The suit alleges that AB5 is unconstitutional due to its mishandling of free speech, freedom of the press, and equal protection under the law. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

JoBeth McDaniel, chair of ASJA’s First Amendment Committee stated, “Many journalists choose to freelance because we encountered discrimination, harassment and bullying in staff positions. Others — such as parents, caregivers and the disabled — need the flexibility of setting their own schedules and workloads.”

The flexibility they provide has always been one of the things that makes gig economy jobs appealing. What legislators and bureaucrats do not understand, or understand but choose to ignore, is that many people employed by the gig economy are not looking for full-time employment. Groups like students and single parents often want to make extra money, but do not have enough time to work a full-time job.

This is not the last time we will be hearing about AB5. Similar legislation is currently being considered in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.