Judge Denies Freelancers’ Bid to Upend California Labor Law

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge has denied a bid by freelance journalists and photographers to block parts of a California labor law designed to require gig-economy companies to offer employee status and benefits to their workers.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors and National Press Photographers Association filed a federal lawsuit claiming Assembly Bill 5 unfairly caps the number of freelance submissions at 35 per year.

The bill, which took effect in January, was crafted by lawmakers who seek to extend employee-status protections and benefits to independent workers who companies classify as contractors. Lawmakers said the intentional misclassification of workers has contributed to income inequality nationwide.

But the organizations said forcing employers to extend benefits to freelancers – such as disability insurance, paid family leave and sick leave – will make it harder for freelancers to obtain stable employment.

In a preliminary injunction motion, the groups argued the 35-piece cap was unfair and AB 5  would disadvantage freelancers by making their labor more expensive and thus less attractive to employers.

Freelance journalists and photographers would also lose the flexibility of freelance status and, as employees, would lose ownership of copyrights to their work, the motion said.

But U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez denied the request to block parts of AB 5 and dismissed the organizations’ lawsuit, writing in a pair of rulings issued March 20 that California succeeded in demonstrating its interest in extending labor protections to all workers.

Gutierrez found AB 5 succeeds in its intent of drawing critical distinctions between different types of freelance work and that plaintiffs failed to show the law contradicted its intent or suggested favoritism to certain industries.

“There is no indication that AB 5 reflects preference for the substance or content of what certain speakers have to say, or aversion to what other speakers have to say,” he wrote. “The justification for these distinctions is proper categorization of an employment relationship, unrelated to the content of speech.”

In an email, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said, “We’ll let the decisions speak for themselves.”

Plaintiffs’ counsel Caleb R. Trotter of Pacific Legal Foundation said in a statement the ruling is an example of the government limiting the free press.

“In a long list of speaking professions exempted from AB 5’s onerous independent contracting requirements, only journalists have a cap on their work and only photojournalists are prohibited from communicating with video,” Trotter said in an email. “The district court’s decisions condoning discrimination against the free flow of objective information should be reversed.”

Gutierrez found the 35-submission cap serves California’s interest in ensuring freelancers classified as contractors receive benefits and protections when their work resembles that of an employee.

In granting the state’s motion to dismiss, Gutierrez wrote that the organizations’ challenge to law under the Equal Protection Clause was not viable since lawmakers demonstrated a rational basis for drawing distinctions between types of freelance work.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for National Press Photographers Association, pointed to the growing Covid-19 pandemic as proof of the need for especially visual journalists.

“We are extremely disappointed with the court’s ruling in this case and are strongly considering our appeal options,” Osterreicher said. “We had hoped that a favorable ruling would have helped our members and others detrimentally impacted by the challenged language of AB 5 by preventing the state from enforcing those sections of the law. Unfortunately, writers, visual journalists and others will continue to lose freelance opportunities at a time when they could be providing the public with information and images related to the Covid-19 pandemic in California.”

The organizations have until April 17 to file an amended complaint.

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