SACRAMENTO — Conservatives often suggest that the mainstream media is filled with left-wing activists who do the Democrats’ bidding, but that’s rarely the case outside a few elite publications — and it is easily identifiable when it is. The most nefarious articles are those that have a veneer of balance but build upon a biased premise. Prime examples are fact-checking articles that pretend to offer a fair-minded analysis but are a pretense to advocate for a point of view.
The worst one I’ve seen in ages comes from the Sacramento Bee’s chief congressional correspondent, David Lightman, in his Feb. 19 news report reviewing remarks by Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley from Rocklin, California. It’s astounding how much misinformation, sleight of hand, and selective amnesia can fit in one mid-length news piece. The issue involves California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) — a 2019 law that banned many forms of independent contracting.
There’s little question that the Biden administration is looking to impose similar regulations at the national level. As I reported for The American Spectator, the Department of Labor is looking to approve new federal wage and hour rules that apply California’s strict “ABC Test” — first developed by the state Supreme Court in the Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles decision and then codified by the legislature — to decisions regarding contractor or employee status. (READ MORE by Steven Greenhut: Biden’s Tone-Deaf New Labor Rules)
For purposes of AB 5, the test essentially banned the use of freelancers except in some narrow circumstances. Lawmakers targeted ridesharing and app-based delivery companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, but applied it widely across the economy. The law caused enormous disruptions as freelance writers, musicians, sign language interpreters, photographers, etc., suddenly found their working arrangements to be verboten.
Ever beholden to organized labor, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have ignored the lessons of AB 5 in California and are advancing similar legislation as well as regulatory efforts to impose the restriction by fiat. The Department of Labor proposal doesn’t apply as broadly as AB 5, but the New York Times explained (in a remarkably fair and thorough article) that employers, regulators, and judges would use the ruling as guidance, thus leading to similar limitations on gig work.
In a recent House of Representatives floor speech, Kiley pointed out the obvious: “With a stroke of his pen, Governor Gavin Newsom rendered countless Californians, spanning hundreds of professions, unable to earn a living in our state.” He called efforts to nationalize the California ban “a grave threat to American workers that is coming from Washington, D.C., right now.”
Lightman retorted, in a claim that sounds neutral and factual:
There’s no independent data to support Kiley’s claim that [AB 5] impoverished large segments of workers. However, experts say the law could have a significant, still unknown impact on state workers. It’s just difficult to say at this point because the law is too new to reliably evaluate.
For starters, there’s plenty of evidence that the law did, in fact, throw tens of thousands of Californians out of work. When a law forbids workers from working in certain fields unless they are permanent employees, those workers will find themselves out of work. Perhaps Lightman didn’t pay attention to the California media after the law went into effect.
In February 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported on the AB 5 backlash:
We received more than 120 responses from artists across California — jazz and classical musicians, directors of arts nonprofits, magicians, costume designers, actors, a burlesque dancer and a freelance food stylist, among others. The overwhelming majority said AB 5 is hurting their careers. Many are unsure how to comply with the law. Others are cutting back on programming or canceling services because of the cost required to convert independent contractors to employees.
Perhaps he didn’t read this piece published on the Bee’s editorial pages:
Vox Media announced it is cutting ties with about 200 California freelance writers because of AB 5, the state’s new law governing independent contractors. Writers, independent truckers, and freelance photographers have filed suit, saying the law will wreck their livelihoods.
He also apparently missed the brouhaha at the Port of Oakland, as truckers last year protested the impact of AB 5 on their profession.
This gets to the other absurdity baked into Lightman’s article. It doesn’t explain that the original law included 57 exemptions (from the state’s most politically powerful professions) and that Assembly Bill 2257 effectively replaced AB 5 by adding dozens more exemptions. How can any serious article about AB 5 not mention those exemptions — or California voters’ subsequent decision to pass Proposition 22 and exempt ridesharing drivers from the law?
The ridesharing issue is tied up in the courts, but ridesharing drivers continue to operate without the restraints of AB 5. And ridesharing was the obvious target of the legislature, which chose to codify the high court’s ruling rather than revise it. As Lightman correctly reports, no major studies have evaluated the impact of AB 5. But what kind of impact would one expect from a law that ultimately exempted almost every major industry from its provisions?
Furthermore, the headline of Lightman’s report describes AB 5 as a “worker rights law,” which mirrors the union take on the issue. Lightman doesn’t portray the law as a ban on independent contracting but as a law “that reclassified many independent workers as employees — thus giving them the right to minimum wages, worker’s compensation and other benefits.”
Sure, workers got the “right” to those benefits, but only if their employers hired them as permanent workers rather than handling them the way Vox handled its California freelancers — by dumping them. I still get a chuckle out of this headline from a September 2019 Vox article: “Gig workers’ win in California is a victory for workers everywhere.” Well, yeah, except for the writer’s colleagues who lost their work.
And what does the Bee think will happen to many rideshare drivers if AB 5 ever is applied to them? One doesn’t need a study to figure it out.
Finally, Lightman quotes Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, who said, “Kiley is so out of touch with working people.” I’ll let it slide that Lightman didn’t mention that Gonzalez Fletcher was the author of the legislation. Yet he should have mentioned that she reportedly said freelance jobs are “not good jobs to begin with,” harangued critics, and proposed further reforms to the law following the torrent of criticism from people who lost their jobs.
Who is out of touch here? Then again, she is a union organizer and former politician with a transparent agenda. There’s no excuse for the Bee’s take on Kiley.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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