California made headlines when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law on Sept. 18 to protect independent contract workers in the state. Here in Minneapolis, city officials have been working on similar legislation to protect contractors or freelance workers, despite receiving less media attention. California could learn a lot from Minneapolis and elsewhere on how to use policy to better support freelancers.
California’s pro-labor Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) will convert independent contractors for companies like Uber and Lyft into employees. But California’s so-called “gig economy law” comes with unintended consequences: It will hurt freelance journalists. And the debate on social media around AB 5 tends to miss the point by pitting full-time employees and their labor unions against freelancers.
As an expert in digital work and labor, I see AB 5 as an opportunity to consider different legislative solutions to protect freelancers in California and beyond, including made-in-Minnesota legislation.
Precarious gig work
Freelance work is on the rise across the country. The proportion of full-time freelance workers increased from 17 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2019, according to the Freelancing in America: 2019 report. The majority of freelancers work in media-related occupations, including arts, design and entertainment.
My research demonstrates many workers are forced to accept freelance gigs due to full-time job cuts across the media industries. Yet freelance work is often low-paid and insecure, coming with minimal benefits like health care. And unlike full-time employees, freelancers aren’t able to form unions and bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and job security.
But some workers, including journalists, still willingly freelance because it provides them with employment flexibility and relatively more control over their work than full-time employees. And that’s good news for media companies. My research also suggests media companies are increasingly relying on freelance contributors.
By placing an annual submission limit of 35 items of content per media outlet on freelance journalists, California’s AB 5 will make freelance journalism more precarious. Some freelancers won’t be able to secure enough income to pay their bills and build their portfolios to secure more work.
AB 5 also does little to address non-payment or late payment for freelance work. Sixty percent of freelancers reported they are concerned about non-payment or late payment, according to Freelancing in America: 2019.
Solutions to support freelancers
As freelance work is expected to increase, Minneapolis’ Workplace Advisory Committee introduced the Freelance Workers Protection Ordinance in June. Minneapolis City Council published the first draft of the ordinance Sept. 12, outlining ways to protect freelancers.
Under the freelance ordinance, workers would have the right to a written contract with the hiring party if they are expected to earn $800 or more from that party for one or more contracts within a 120-day period. Freelancers would also be entitled to timely payment and protection from retaliation. The hiring party would have to pay a fine of up to $3,000 to the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights if it violates the terms of the ordinance.
In case you missed it, the Minneapolis City Council is still conducting a Freelance Worker Protections Survey to get freelancers’ input to further inform the development of the ordinance.
This freelance workers legislation will serve as a companion to the city’s new Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance, which the City Council passed in August. The city’s law follows in the footsteps of Minnesota’s Wage Theft Prevention Act, which the state Legislature passed in May.
Another model: New York City
Policymakers could also look to New York for a model to protect freelance workers in labor legislation. New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act is a case in point. Since 2017, this law has guaranteed freelancers a written contract, timely and full payment and protection against company retaliation.
Yet Minnesota, California and other states could also still make it easier for freelance workers to unionize and collectively bargain for fair wages, working conditions, benefits and contracts across particular industries.
Some media companies, including The Nation and Jacobin, have voluntarily signed a freelance contributors’ agreement. These agreements set standards for rates, payment and grievance procedures. They suggest how labor legislation could support freelance workers if such agreements were standardized across media industries or other particular industries.
Errol Salamon, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral teaching associate in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He is co-editor of the book “Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada” (University of Toronto Press, 2016).
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