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California

Labor won big with bill to rewrite California employment law — but it’s flawed

Lyft drivers show support for Assembly Bill 5
Lyft driver Tyler Sandness of Los Angeles gathers with fellow members of Rideshare Drivers United-Los Angeles outside City Hall to show support for Assembly Bill 5, which would reclassify many contractors as employees.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Independent trucker Robert Schott was driving his big rig down the I-10 near Pomona when I reached him on his cell to talk about the “gig” bill. He hated the measure.

We chatted shortly before the state Senate passed the bill Tuesday night after an emotional debate. Then the Assembly on Wednesday sent it to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who already had endorsed the measure.

It’s organized labor’s biggest legislative victory in years. The bill will reclassify an estimated 1 million California workers as company employees rather than independent contractors, enshrining in law a state Supreme Court ruling. As employees, they’ll be eligible for new benefits, pay guarantees — and union membership.

“First off, I’ll have to sell my truck,” Schott said above the engine roar. “Or the bank will wind up taking it. I can’t afford to make the payments if I’m an employee. I wouldn’t be running my own business and making as much money.”

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Schott, 55, a freight hauler from Rancho Cucamonga, also echoed the universal complaint of the bill’s opponents: He’ll lose flexibility.

“I’d have to work by the company’s schedule under its terms,” he said. “As an owner-operator, I choose my own schedule. I’m a single father and take my girl to school every morning and see her at night. I don’t think people making this law understand how it’s going to impact us.

“They’re grouping too many people in one category. They’re grouping us in with Uber drivers and I don’t think that’s right.”

I called some ride-share drivers. Some liked the bill, others didn’t.

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Konstantine Anthony, 38, of Burbank, drives for Uber now and used to for Lyft. He says both keep lowering their pay scales without consulting drivers.

“Driving in L.A., it’s hectic,” he said. “You should get hazard pay….”

“Once AB 5 is on the books, it gives drivers the ability to unionize. That opens the door to benefits, time off, spending time with the kids.”

But Jack Kinney, 60, an L.A. driver for Lyft, sees just the opposite.

“My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer,” he said. “By having complete freedom of schedule, I was able to get her to every doctor appointment and procedure. Her English isn’t that good and I was able to translate. If I had to be on a company schedule, I’d lose a lot of freedom.”

Maybe — maybe not. His union might negotiate time off for family illness.

For months, most of the public’s attention concerning the bill has focused on Uber and Lyft drivers. But lately, people have awakened to the realization that it also affects independent truckers, healthcare providers, adult entertainers, psych therapists and many other workers. Lobbyists have packed the Capitol seeking exemptions.

And dozens of them have been granted, including for doctors, lawyers, insurance brokers, some freelance writers and commercial fishermen. Newspaper carriers won a last-minute exemption for one year. But among truckers, only those who tow disabled vehicles or haul building construction material obtained exemptions.

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“Why didn’t we get an exemption?” asked Kevin Saiki of San Diego, a cardiopulmonary perfusionist — someone who operates life support equipment, he explained, “in a last-ditch effort to save life.”

“How do you qualify for an exemption?”

Answer: pressure and persistence. Better also hire a lobbyist. And, of course, it helps to be a political supporter.

“In California,” Saiki continued, “there are only 350 of us. We’re a specialized field. We’re on call. We respond to emergencies. We work with other groups. As employees, that wouldn’t be possible.”

Saiki, who is legislative chair of the California Perfusion Society, asked: “How can you make blanket legislation like this? Either they’re not educated or are ignoring reality to try to give labor unions more power.”

There was a lot of such talk by Republicans during the two-hour Senate debate.

Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) charged the bill was “a Christmas tree for organized labor that might as well have an office right here in the state Capitol.” He ended with a characterization of “labor bosses in smoked-filled rooms.”

Smoking hasn’t been allowed in the Capitol for years, but labor essentially has dozens of offices there. Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses. And for most, unions are their strongest, most reliable supporters. Moreover, Newsom is much more predictably liberal than his centrist predecessor, Jerry Brown.

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The bill, AB 5, was authored by a former labor organizer, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). Its Senate floor jockey, Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), once led the L.A. County Federation of Labor. Both reacted heatedly to repeated GOP assaults on the bill.

“I’ve had enough,” Gonzalez said, asserting that what many California workers have is “not flexibility, it’s feudalism.”

Durazo said: “We can either choose to become complicit in the exploitation of hard-working Californians or we can choose to rebuild the working and middle class.”

But Senate Republican leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield accused Democrats of “picking favorites” and “choosing winners and losers.”

In the Senate, the bill passed 29-11. All Democrats voted “yes” and all Republicans said “no.” In the Assembly, the measure passed 56-15. One Democrat voted “no” — Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced. One Republican was a “yes” — Tyler Diep of Westminster.

There are lots of gray hues in this landmark legislation that don’t reflect the black-and-white partisan voting. Many Democrats admitted there are flaws and promised to try to correct them next year.

Right! We’ve heard that before. As a rule, flawed bills shouldn’t be passed in the first place.


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