Newsletter: California rewrites the rules of employment

Uber and Lyft drivers carry signs during a demonstration
Supporters of AB 5 rally at the Capitol in late August.
(Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Sept. 12, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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A 6,700-word bill that kindled fierce controversy and existential discussions about the very nature of an employee is now almost California law.

Assembly Bill 5 (also known by many as the gig worker bill) passed the state Legislature on Wednesday. It still needs an official signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom, but he has already pledged his support.


The sweeping legislation, which curbs businesses’ use of independent contractors, will rewrite the rules of employment across a wide swath of industries. It could grant hundreds of thousands of workers new job benefits and pay guarantees by reclassifying them as employees.

As reporters Margot Roosevelt, Johana Bhuiyan and Taryn Luna explained in their story, “Contractors, including many in multibillion-dollar technology companies, are not covered by laws guaranteeing a minimum wage, overtime pay, sick leave, family leave, unemployment and disability insurance, workers’ compensation and protection against discrimination or sexual harassment. Nor do businesses pay into Social Security or Medicare for contractors.”

[Read the story: “Sweeping bill rewriting California employment law sent to Gov. Newsom” in the Los Angeles Times]

At the most basic level, AB 5 is an attempt to align state law with the California Supreme Court’s 2018 Dynamex ruling, which adopted a strict, three-part standard for determining whether workers should be treated as employees.

But it’s also a response to the ever-growing gig economy, whose promised convenience and flexibility — working when you want, where you want with the touch of a button — has also meant freedom from hard-fought labor law protections. The battle over AB 5 pitted labor against big business, with the platform-based gig giants like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates mounting the most prominent opposition. (For many casual watchers, the political dogfight was also occasionally a bit hard to follow, as both sides often tried to position themselves as protectors of the individual workers and their futures.)

The employee vs. contractor quandary — and the potential breadth of AB 5 — is also by no means limited to the tech-based gig economy. The bill, as The Times story explains, could upend the relationship between workers and bosses across businesses as varied as construction, healthcare, trucking, janitorial services, nail salons, adult entertainment, commercial fishing and newspapers. Numerous exemptions were granted, and far more were lobbied for.


[See also: “Are you an employee or a contractor? Carpenters, strippers and dog walkers now face that question” in the Los Angeles Times]

Critics have also raised concerns about how the legislation could affect businesses and create new costs that could be passed on to consumers. Some contractors have also worried that the changes could hurt them by curbing flexibility and adding new rules.

Meanwhile, Uber took a very Big Tech approach to news of AB 5’s passage, with the company essentially declaring — to oversimplify, slightly — that despite not winning the exemption it fought for, it still plans to consider drivers exempt. (Or, as a headline on auto site Jalopnik put it, “Uber to California: Make us.”) The next chapter will probably play out in the courts.

Our fair state has long played bellwether for the other 49, and AB 5 will arguably be the strongest legislation of its kind in the nation. But the struggles of implementation remain to be seen, let alone what may or may not follow on the national stage.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


It’s the legislative equivalent of Sweeps Week in Sacramento, and AB 5 was far from the only high-profile legislation sent to Newsom’s desk. Here’s what else you need to know. (All of these bills have been approved by the Legislature but still need Newsom’s signature before becoming law.)

  • Tenants across California will for the first time have protections against how much landlords can increase their rents after legislators narrowly approved a measure to cap annual rent hikes. (Newsom brokered the deal that led to its passage and has already pledged to sign it.) Los Angeles Times
  • This bill would outlaw new items made from the fur of undomesticated animals, including mink, rabbit and coyote. (Supporters feel optimistic that Newsom will sign it.) Los Angeles Times
  • California could soon allow college athletes to profit from endorsements. (The NCAA really doesn’t want to see this become law. In a letter to Newsom, it warned that the legislation would be “unconstitutional. The governor does not seem to have signaled his position.) Los Angeles Times
  • Lawmakers approved a package of reforms sparked by the recent college admissions scandal, including a bill that requires special admissions of students at public universities to be approved by three campus administrators. Los Angeles Times

Vaccine bill critics want California voters to block newly-passed limits on exemptions. Opponents of California’s newly enacted vaccine laws filed referendums on Wednesday to overturn SB 276 and SB 714. But the path ahead could be costly and difficult. Los Angeles Times

Could UCLA have stopped William “Rick” Singer and the admissions scandal five years ago? An internal investigation at UCLA uncovered key elements of his scam in 2014. University officials were concerned enough at the time to interview Singer, who denied wrongdoing, and brief UCLA Chancellor Gene Block on the investigation. Los Angeles Times


Drones are now a permanent part of the LAPD’s arsenal, despite opposition from privacy advocates who fear the remote-controlled aircraft will be used to spy on people. Los Angeles Times

LAPD SWAT officer Tom Chinappi at a news conference in January to announce the department’s first use of a drone.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The end of the backend? Disney wants to limit profit participation on its new TV shows with a new deal structure that could have a significant effect on the long-term earnings of show creators. Los Angeles Times

An Echo Park lot could become homeless housing after a bitter clash at City Hall. Los Angeles Times

A Midcentury Modern homeless shelter rises in an abandoned Hollywood library. Los Angeles Times

After nearly 15 years as a busboy at Nobu, Edgar Baca opened up his own Mexican sushi restaurant in Lynwood. L.A. Taco

Food columnist Lucas Peterson reviews the new Japanese restaurant at Chateau Marmont and finds it deeply lacking (the sashimi plate “tasted like licking the inside of a fish tank”). But then things get really interesting, as Peterson wrestles aloud with questions about whether or not a restaurant where the chef has been credibly accused of misconduct should even be reviewed. Los Angeles Times

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The Supreme Court ruled for President Trump and cleared the way for his administration to enforce a ban on nearly all asylum seekers arriving at the southern border. Los Angeles Times

The federal government is denying legal assistance to child migrants living at a Modesto shelter, according to advocates who worry the kids will suffer unnecessarily without access to attorneys. Modesto Bee


San Francisco’s department of public health decided to stop admitting people into a long-term care facility for mentally ill patients last year — and instead leave several beds empty every night — because officials said the facility was unsafe due to staff negligence and errors. San Francisco Chronicle

A proposed California law would require the attorney general to conduct immediate investigations of immigrant-detention deaths. Since 2003, 193 people have died in ICE custody, including 30 in California. Capital & Main

Alhambra leaders backtracked on a public speaking rule change amid allegations of squashing free speech. Pasadena Star-News

From the annals of unlikely allies: California Democrats are citing Ronald Reagan in their defense of a state law that requires President Trump to release his tax returns before he may appear on next year’s primary ballot. San Francisco Chronicle


Inside the turbulent Ghost Ship trial jury deliberations that led to dismissals, acquittal and deadlock. San Francisco Chronicle

Can a Catholic hospital deny a hysterectomy to a transgender man? A California court will decide. KQED


After the deadly dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island, the Coast Guard has issued new safety rules on preparedness and battery charging. Los Angeles Times

It snowed in the Lake Tahoe Basin this week, with about an inch recorded at elevations above 8,000 feet. SF Gate


“If a [Silicon Valley] start-up is fizzling, shuttering or caught scamming? The socially acceptable response is total silence.” Here’s happened when a venture capitalist told the truth about a Mark Zuckerberg-backed start-up. New York Times

The judge in the Brock Turner sexual assault case is now coaching high school girls tennis. Aaron Persky, who was ousted as a superior court judge in June 2018, now heads the junior varsity girls tennis team at a San Jose school. Mercury News

Butte College is assessing a major decline in enrollment after the Camp fire. An administrator said it lost 1,000 in enrollment, with the dive beginning last November as students and families were forced to leave, often due to lack of housing and funds to stay in the area. Oroville Mercury-Register

Someone stole an antique, nearly 8-foot-tall birdhouse from the yard of a Modesto home and the family it belongs to would really, really like it back. The birdhouse, which has been in the family for more than 60 years, is estimated to weigh between 250 to 300 pounds. Modesto Bee


Los Angeles: sunny, 85. San Diego: sunny, 78. San Francisco: sunny, 79. San Jose: sunny, 92. Sacramento: sunny, 95. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Michael Bowe:

“Robert Frank spent a year as a guest artist at UC Davis in 1974-75 where I was a senior art major/photographer/filmmaker. He was an interesting soul who could not live in Davis but chose Woodland, a nearby village that appealed to his unpretentious nature. Robert and his partner June Leaf were a breath of fresh air. He was a man of integrity and conviction. We shot a film in Woodlawn and he premiered his [rarely seen] Rolling Stones tour film to the UCD student body. I will miss his humor and great sense of the moment.”

[ICYMI: Here’s yesterday’s story about when Robert Frank came to California in 1955 while shooting “The Americans.” Thanks to Michael for sending in a memory in response.]

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.