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The grenade that blew up one California freelancer’s dream

Apr 13, 2021 by AFP

Jo Beth McDaniel started her career as a journalist early, freelancing for newspapers in Alabama while still a teenaged college student. After graduating, she began working for major newspapers and magazines in the Atlanta area. Over time, she discovered the newsroom environment wasn’t as glamorous as she had hoped.

Jo Beth McDaniel, freelance journalist opposed to AB 5 and the PRO ActShe describes working in an office environment as luck of the draw: “You may get really great people who respect you and love you and treat you like family” — or you might not.

Unfortunately, McDaniel wasn’t always treated with respect or paid as much as her male counterparts. While she acknowledges many of the problems women have in the workplace are better now, when she began her career, she recalls, “it was really bad. I got sick of the misogyny. I just didn’t have the stomach for it.”

McDaniel made the decision to transition to freelance writing for magazines where she was paid more than a full-time employee at a newspaper. Her career shift gave her the freedom to move to California and more control in choosing the people with whom she worked.

“I had a client who […] started being a problem, and I just walked,” she says. “I quit taking his calls.”

For many independent contractors, freelancing is a path to freedom and financial independence. For McDaniel, it was more than that. Transitioning to freelance journalism was her way out of a toxic work environment where she could choose to work only with people who respected her.

McDaniel’s independent contracting career thrived for decades — until the state of California made it nearly impossible for her to continue her dream job.

Why freelancing isn’t an inferior employment status

When Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, McDaniel says the legislation “threw a hand grenade into most freelancers’ careers here,” making life much harder for creative professionals. The law forced employers to reclassify most of their independent contractors as part-time employees who receive W-2 tax forms.

McDaniel believes the state politicians who supported AB 5 wrongly assume that being an independent contractor is an inferior employment status because it does not offer benefits such as employer-sponsored health insurance and paid time off.

But for freelancers like McDaniel, being a part-time employee could be the worst of both worlds. Not only do part-time employees not get benefits, but they also aren’t allowed to retain ownership of their creative work or take advantage of the tax write-offs for essential business  expenses that freelancers do, including car mileage, home office equipment, and internet service.

“If you’re forcing me to be W-2 for [several employers] — they’re not paying my expenses, they own my copyright, they can control my time and the other things I’m doing. There are so many negatives, so what’s the positive for me?” McDaniel asks.

Freelancers are more than their tax classification

McDaniel emphasizes that freelancers need the government to support their work choices and “not just pretend that W-2 is ideal for everyone.”

When AB 5 went into effect, McDaniel noticed her business dropping off. “I started getting fewer calls back,” she says. Unfortunately, loss of work for independent contractors is difficult to quantify.

“I think politicians respect things that can be counted and measured,” she says. “[But] part of the problem is [that] there’s no way to measure the work that a freelancer loses. You don’t know if it’s because you’re from California or they didn’t like [the] pitch.”

This kind of one-size-fits-none legislation overlooks people who are independent contractors for personal reasons, such as McDaniel. These people are choosing to freelance because it’s a better fit for their lifestyle.

Politicians might assume independent contractors are exploited because they don’t have employer-sponsored benefits or because some are not making as much money on an annual basis as full-time employees. But when you take a closer look at each person’s unique situation, you’ll see it’s not always about the money and benefits for freelancers, but the freedom to choose.

For example, many independent contractors choose to cut back on their freelancing work for personal reasons, like Jo Beth did when she chose to go to graduate school. “I’d rather get through [graduate] school and make less money this year,” she remembers thinking. “Now, that’s an adult decision I made […] and the state [of California] is trying to say that that was a bad decision.”

An uncertain future for freelancers

McDaniel says she’s had to pivot her work since AB 5 became law. With years of experience under her belt, she is writing a book and plans to launch a podcast — work that does not require her to become a part-time employee.

But one obstacle has been hiring the right people she needs to assist in these projects. Before AB 5, she would have hired other freelancers to design her website, do research for her book, or help edit her podcast.

“About 35 percent of freelancers will hire other freelancers,” she explained. “I’ve not been able to comfortably hire anyone with skills that I need.”

Now, federal legislation threatens the livelihoods of freelancers across the country. The PRO Act, introduced by Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), passed the House and would apply similar employee classification regulation across the country.

This is why McDaniel has joined the coalition fighting AB 5 in California, not just for her own career, but for all freelancers in California and across the country who may be hurt by AB 5 and similar legislation.

When looking at the future of her career, McDaniel admits it’s scary to have the government in between her and her work as a freelance writer, which she has always viewed as her lifeline to a happier life.

“I feel that freelancing was something that, in a way, saved my life,” she says. “And it scares me that so many wouldn’t have that very adult choice.”

Take action to protect the freedom and flexibility of independent contractors like Jo Beth McDaniel.