Freelance Writers Cautiously Optimistic About CA Gig Economy Law Amendment: "Work Has Picked Up"

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AB 2257 removes AB 5's controversial 35-submission cap for independent contractors who write professionally but does not exempt journalists working in "motion pictures": "There is more work to do."

Sept. 4 brought some rare good news for freelance writers in California in 2020. That day, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 2257, an amendment to California's controversial gig economy law AB 5, which had especially hurt the freelance writing community. AB 2257, which removes AB 5's stipulation that freelance writers hand in no more than 35 submissions per year per employer, was passed as an urgency measure and took effect immediately.

But a few weeks later, these writers are still waiting to see how the amendment will improve their situations. Since AB 5 was signed into law in September 2019 and took effect in January 2020, many have suffered an onslaught of career threats: Some companies, including Vox Media, ceased working altogether with California freelancers, while others, like Business Insider, capped them at 35 stories a year, per the law's requirements (The Hollywood Reporter additionally reviewed several job notices in late 2019 that specifically excluded California freelancers from applying). Then, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on journalism's bottom line, leading some publications to impose a freeze on or limit freelance submissions. Even with the new amendment in place, some freelance writers are struggling.

THR spoke with several writers who previously discussed their concerns about AB 5 to see how and if AB 2257 is helping so far — and learned most of them are cautiously optimistic, even if they see flaws in the latest amendment.

"The work has picked up. But slowly," Aaron Pruner, a freelance entertainment journalist, writes in an email. "But because of the pandemic, the industry shutdown and the current economic crunch, clients are still tight with their budgets. And it's still more difficult now to get the greenlight on pitches." Pruner says that though his workload was impacted by AB 5, it was more endangered by COVID-19. He is additionally trying to balance lockdown-era parenting duties with work: "If it wasn't for unemployment, I would've really been in a grind," he says.

Fred Topel, the co-leader of the freelance writers' advocacy group California Freelance Writers United, says he's seen two "success stories" from the amendment so far: TextBroker and Scripted are now working with California writers again. (Scripted and TextBroker confirmed this when reached by THR.) Topel has also heard from a few colleagues "that they explained the new amendment to clients who had put them on hold, and they're back," he said. Topel did not lose work because of AB 5 but says his situation was "purely luck of the draw."

Amy Lamare, who writes for Celebritynetworth.com and YourTango.com, did lose some work because of AB 5 — about "$1,200 a month," she says — but kept her main gig. She has recently struggled to supplement her main source of income with others but "now that this new amendment has gone into place, I plan to do a much wider push with editors I've worked with in the past in the hopes that they haven't pulled out of California entirely and this will enable them to hire us all back," she says. She's also started reinstating mentions of her home state — which she pulled when AB 5 took into effect — on her social media and other public-facing profiles.

When asked whether AB 2257 would change Business Insider's cap for California freelancers of 35 stories, a representative said in a statement, "We don’t discuss the nature of our relationships with our business partners, including freelancers. However, we are aware of the recent changes to AB5 and are continuing to monitor how the law is being interpreted, challenged, and enforced – and we will take appropriate steps to ensure compliance."

San Francisco Chronicle publisher Bill Nagel, for his part, said, "AB 2257 is a welcome piece of legislation to improve AB5 for some business[es]. I applaud the journalists who were vocal in lobbying California’s lawmakers. We hope to see additional changes to AB5 to allow more workers the right to maintain their independent contractor status." Vox Media, The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

While AB 2257 eradicates freelance writers' biggest qualm with AB 5 — the 35-submission cap — members of California Freelance Writers United say that the law doesn't reflect everything they fought for. They did not succeed in landing an exemption from AB 5 for freelance journalists, photographers, videographers and photo editors who also work in "motion pictures" as defined by AB 2257 — "which is inclusive of, but is not limited to, theatrical or commercial productions, broadcast news, television, and music videos," the law states.

“AB2257 failed to fully reinstate the rights of media professionals who report via photography and/or videography,” CAFWU co-leader Tara Bennett said in a statement.

CAFWU co-leader Alisha Grauso added in her own statement, "This is untenable when the modern-day landscape requires that journalists increasingly work across media."

The American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association called out the original bill for "drawing unconstitutional content-based distinctions about who can freelance" including by "precluding some freelancers from making videorecordings" when the groups filed suit against the state in December over AB 5. In a statement, ASJA president Laura Laing said of the new amendment, "AB 2257 gave us some of what we wanted, including dropping the 35-submission limit. But the law doesn’t remedy the basic constitutional problem that certain classes of freelance writers and photographers are treated differently from other groups. ASJA believes that independent writers and photographers deserve exemptions along with other professionals. Our lawsuit with NPPA, which is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, addresses those constitutional issues, and we hope to prevail there."

In addition to their fight for journalists working in film and television, the writers at CAFWU say that they are looking to help other industries affected by AB 5 in California and similar legislation underway in other states and federally (the PRO Act, which has passed the House but is unlikely to pass the Senate, contains AB 5's "ABC Test" to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor). "There is more work to do," Topel says. "Since we've created a platform, we're happy to help by advising other industries how we did it with no political or financial help."

Sept. 18, 11:26 a.m. Updated with TextBroker's response.