When The Rules Do Not Apply: Freelancers’ Lawsuit Challenges California’s New ABC Test

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I was headed to an appointment last week when I came upon this sign. Sometimes the people who make the rules just assume the rules don’t apply to them. Or sometimes people don’t even think about the rules and whether they make sense.

I was tempted to take the sign off the piano, in the interests of following the directive on the sign. But I just took a picture instead.

This post is about when the rules should apply.

Since California’s new ABC Test law (Assembly Bill 5) went into effect January 1st, the legal challenges have been rolling in. (See this post, for example.) The latest groups to challenge the new law are freelance writers and photographers.

Wanna know something absurd? Of course you. We all do. That’s why we read the internet on our phones during meetings. Under the new law, freelancers are exempt from the ABC Test — and can likely remain independent contractors — if they make 35 or fewer submissions to a publication in a year. But with the 36th submission, the ABC Test suddenly applies, meaning that same freelancer would more likely become an employee, retroactive to the first submission.

What is so special about the 36th submission that would convert a freelancer from an independent contractor to an employee? All together now: “Nothing!” This law is ridiculous. A newly filed lawsuit asks a court to invalidate that limit on the basis that it is arbitrary, which it absolutely is. The lawsuit alleges that the arbitrariness violates the freelancers’ Equal Protection and First Amendment Rights.

Freelancers don’t want to be employees for two reasons.

First, works created by contractors are owned by the contractors, who can license the works and earn a fee. That’s how they make money — and is the reason why freelance journalists are all so rich. (That’s for my daughter, who’s in journalism school and doesn’t eat ramen noodles. Yet.) In contrast, under the U.S. Copyright Act, works created by an employee are owned by the employer. That means the freelancer who created the work loses the rights to it. So, if we apply the new rule, that would mean Submission #36, which likely converts the freelancer to a retroactive employee, also converts ownership of Submissions #1-35 to the employer. No way that’s fair.

Second, for every action there’s a reaction. Publishers are not stupid. They don’t want freelancers to become their employees either. So what will they do once a freelancer hits the 35-submission limit? They won’t accept any more submissions. That hurts the publication and the freelancer. Or maybe they will want some freelancers to become their employees so they can commandeer ownership of Submissions #1-35. Either way, this is absurd.

If you’d like to read more, here’s a copy of the complaint. The lawsuit is pending in federal court in the Central District of California.

And please don’t place anything on top of the piano.

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© 2020 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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