California’s AB 5 Has Been Repealed, Sort Of.

Rain rain go away, come again another day.

When Zeus sends his thunderbolts into Cleveland, Zippy gets scared. The snow, wind, and rain don’t bother her, but the thunder and lightning cause her to shake. Usually she hides in the shower.

Seeking shelter from the storm (apologies to Robert Zimmerman) is what California businesses are doing too. Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), codifying the ABC Test for determining who is an employee, has been in effect since January 1, 2020.

On Friday, a new law repealed and replaced it. This new law, AB 2257, passed both chambers in the California legislature unanimously and was signed into law September 4 by Gov. Newsom. It contains an urgency clause, which means it takes immediate effect. So AB 5 is gone.

Great news for businesses, right? Not exactly.

AB 2257 moves the ABC test to a different part of the California Labor Code– new Sections 2775 through 2787–and cleans up some of the confusing and poorly considered language in AB 5. It does not, however, provide relief from the ABC Test for most large businesses.

The revisions make it easier for entertainers, freelance writers and photographers, and digital content aggregators to maintain independent contractor status. It scraps the arbitrary 35-article limit for freelance writers to maintain independent contractor status. It allows entertainers to perform single event gigs without becoming employees. It cleans up some other language too, but it does not make substantial changes that would excuse large businesses from the ABC test.

For example, subsection 2750.3(f) of AB 5 addressed whether an exception applies for work requiring a license from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). The exception, with its multi-part test, is unchanged. It just moves to a new section of the Labor Code, new Section 2781.

One small glimmer of hope comes from some clarifying language for the business-to-business exception. That exception still does not apply for work that requires a CSLB license. To fall within that exception (meaning that the ABC Test would not apply), one of the requirements is that the work must be performed for the benefit of the contracting business, not its customers. Under the revised law, that requirement goes away if “the business service provider’s employees are solely performing the services under the contract under the name of the business service provider and the business service provider regularly contracts with other businesses.” For grammarians who despise double negatives, this is an exception to the exception. You’re welcome. What it means is if your subcontractor has its own employees, operates as its own business, and performs work not requiring a CSLB license, it may be easier to meet the business-to-business exception, thereby avoiding the ABC test.

So where does that leave us? On one hand, the fact that the bill passed both chambers unanimously shows a recognition that AB 5 had some serious flaws. But on the other hand, the fixes that both chambers thought were appropriate are of minimal help to large businesses. It’s like unleashing a horrible lab-created supermonster, then deciding that its eyelashes should be less curly. The largely-superficial changes in AB 2257 are mainly designed to help maintain independent contractor status for individuals who truly run their own businesses, particularly in the entertainment, journalism, and digital content fields.

This new law obliterates AB 5 in name, but not in function.

Like the blanket I gave Zippy, this move by the California legislature is not likely to provide any shelter from the storm. The ABC Test in California remains alive and well. Whether you grab a blanket or hide in the shower, the ABC Test is here to stay.

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

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