Two groups representing freelance journalists filed suit Tuesday in Los Angeles challenging as unconstitutional California’s new law limiting the classification of workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
The battle over Assembly Bill 5, which becomes effective Jan. 1, could take years to resolve in court.
In the complaint, filed in Los Angeles federal court, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association are suing to roll back the law, alleging it will interfere with journalists’ ability to earn a living as independent contractors.
AB-5 author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, claims the law will reduce the number of workers wrongly classified as independent contractors, rather than employees, which allows companies to dodge worker protections such as health insurance benefits and paid sick days.
According to the plaintiffs, AB-5 contains unfair exemptions that disfavor freelance journalists compared to other professions that engage in speech. Writers’ and photographers’ submissions to publications are capped at 35 pieces of content per year; if they exceed that limit, they must become employees. Journalists who record audio or video would lose their ability to work independently. Meanwhile, publishers will face higher costs, according to the complaint.
“Under the law, a freelancer like me can write 200-plus press releases in a year for a marketing firm, and it’s no problem,” San Diego freelance writer Randy Dotinga, a board member and former president of ASJA, said in a statement. “But if a newspaper wants me to write a weekly column about local politics, it must put me on staff — a very unlikely prospect — or violate the law. Otherwise I am silenced.”
New York-based Vox Media announced this week it would end contracts with hundreds of freelance writers and editors in California who covered sports for the blog network SB Nation as the company came into compliance with the law, which could have forced it to reclassify some of these contractors as employees.
Michael P. King, president of the NPPA, expressed concern “over the arbitrary and unjust treatment of independent visual journalists under (AB-5’s) terms. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to amend the bill’s language, lawmakers have been unsympathetic and unresponsive to our pleas.”
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