Opinion

This bill could put local newspapers out of business. What you can do to help stop it

Watch Lyft and Uber drivers swarm to Capitol to support bill

Drivers from Uber and Lyft converged on the Capitol from across California to support Assembly Bill 5, which would force ‘gig economy’ employers to treat independent contractors as employees, on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019.
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Drivers from Uber and Lyft converged on the Capitol from across California to support Assembly Bill 5, which would force ‘gig economy’ employers to treat independent contractors as employees, on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019.

If you believe newspapers play an essential role in strengthening democracy and holding powerful leaders accountable, now is the time to speak up about Assembly Bill 5. The bill, as currently written, could force many California newspapers out of business.

It’s unlikely that Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, sought to create an existential threat to California’s free press when she authored AB 5. But in what seems like an unintended consequence of the bill, AB 5 would basically make daily delivery of the print version of the newspaper nearly impossible. Some papers have said they may turn to mail, meaning a day-late newspaper and increased subscription rates for consumers.

That’s because the bill would require newspapers to treat newspaper carriers as employees rather than independent contractors. This would disrupt and destabilize the newspaper industry at a time when accurate, credible news is most needed – and most threatened.

Newspaper carriers have long been established as part-time, independent contract positions. Unlike new on-demand delivery jobs through platforms like Instacart and DoorDash, newspaper delivery happens at the same time daily in exchange for fixed fees, allowing carriers to count on predictable income and steady hours. These part-time side jobs have existed for decades.

Delivery of the paper usually takes place in the early morning, and most newspaper carriers need two to three hours to complete delivery. It’s not a full-time job, and it never has been. Traditionally, newspaper carriers are usually people who have other jobs but use newspaper delivery as a side job to supplement their incomes.

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By requiring newspapers to extend employee benefits and protections to all newspaper carriers, AB 5 would make newspaper delivery economically impossible. The loss of print revenue from scrapping the print edition of the paper would then deal a severe blow to both the newspaper industry’s viability and mission.

At a time when the president of the United States is constantly attacking and undermining the press – conservative allies of the White House have even conducted investigations into the personal lives of journalists, according to The New York Times – the last thing journalism needs is the kind of threat currently posed by AB 5.

It’s no secret that the journalism industry has been under tremendous economic strain over the past two decades because technology has disrupted its long-established business model. Now, just as some newspapers are starting to turn the corner with the pivot to a digital model, AB 5 threatens further harm.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) has been working to insert language that would exempt newspaper carriers and freelance writers from AB 5. So far, AB 5 appears to be moving forward without any certainty on these exemptions.

That’s why we’re joining forces with newspapers across the state to raise the alarm and crusade to save local news organizations from the damaging aspects of this bill.

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As the Santa Rosa Press Democrat editorial board put it: “Failure to exempt newspaper carriers – who have been recognized by the state as independent contractors since 1987 – could force some publications to scrap their print editions and rely solely on online publishing.”

Lobbyists for other groups of workers – such as doctors, investment advisors, real estate agents and salespeople – have already received exemptions. Members of other professions, such as travel advisers, are also requesting that these new restrictions not apply to them.

“I will be out of a job if we aren’t exempt,” said Kelly Westbrook of Vacaville in a letter to The Sacramento Bee editorial board.

At its most basic level, AB 5 raises some important and worthwhile questions about the value of work and the protection of workers’ rights in a rapidly changing economy. Its main target appears to be relatively new multibillion-dollar “gig economy” companies like Uber and Lyft, which have disrupted full-time taxi jobs in exchange for a gig model that some say cuts workers out of the profits. Lyft and Uber are threatening a ballot initiative if AB 5 does not exempt their drivers.

The bill aims to end the practice of worker misclassification, whereby full-time workers are given independent contractor or part-time status so employers can avoid paying for things like health care. AB 5 would codify the California Supreme Court’s decision in the Dynamex case, which limits the circumstances in which employers can deny employees benefits by designating them as independent contractors.

It’s a crucial topic for the Legislature to address, but the current version of AB 5 is overly broad. It’s hard to evaluate the merits of the bill when it would destroy many small and medium-sized traditional businesses that have always operated on an independent contracting model.

AB 5 has already passed the state Assembly and is moving through the state Senate. If you value the role of your local newspaper, please call your state senator and ask them to vote no on any version of AB 5 that could put newspapers out of business.

To locate and contact your state senator, visit http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/.

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