California law caps freelance articles at 35 a month
California Assembly Bill 5 was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on September 18. The bill codifies and expands on a 2018 California Supreme Court decision that made it harder for companies to classify workers as freelancers rather than employees, and simultaneously, potentially ending freelance journalism in the state.
However, a special carve-out for freelance reporters, editors and photographers allow the content creators to produce no more than 35 “content submissions” per year. At first glance, it’s a sense of relief for these types of professionals and would prevent big publishing hubs from excluding all California-based freelancers entirely. However, some freelancers say it’s easy to hit 35 submissions in just a single month. Below is an excerpt from an interview in the Columbia Journalism Review:
“I’ve worked for sites such as AOL that are mostly run with senior editors doing longer stories and freelancers doing the daily news hits, and in my experience it’s been really easy to go over 35 bylines in less than a month with those,” Zac Estrada, a writer and editor in Los Angeles who covers automotive and technology news for a variety of publications, says. “Earlier this year, I was working for a site doing daily news contributions, and they wanted at least 50 per month.”
California’s new freelancing rules have prompted one site, for which Estrada works as an editor, to re-examine the way it distributes work. He hasn’t had any work from that site this month. “I’m glad the state of California is looking out for workplace issues and benefit, but I don’t see a way this bill helps me,” he says. “A lot of people I know love freelancing and wouldn’t take a full-time job even if it offered them more money.”
Why a limit of 35 stories? The number is the result of negotiations between lawmakers and interest groups, including journalists and journalists’ unions, according to Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation. The union coalition was one of Assembly Bill 5’s chief supporters and worked on it with its author, San Diego Democrat Lorena Gonzalez.
“We had a lot of discussions with journalists and with unions that represent journalists,” Smith says. “You needed to thread the needle. If you had a blanket exemption, what would prevent any newspaper or magazine or online publication from saying, ‘I’m going to get rid of all my employees and make everyone a freelancer’?”
Assembly Bill 5 could have been worse for newspapers and other publishers. The first drafts of the bill had no partial exemptions for freelancers who write fewer than 35 times per year.