Last year, like many other Democrats, I took action. I campaigned, responded to social media misinformation and donated money to candidates. I celebrated when Joe Biden was announced as the winner of the presidency and when Democrats took back the Senate.
The bill could end my ability to be my own boss, set my own hours and otherwise live the American worker’s dream.
I also wrote a book to remind myself — and all of us — that honesty was something that still mattered, despite having the most dishonest person imaginable leading our country. But now that Donald Trump is out of office, I’m facing a painful truth: The man I prayed would become president could sign a piece of legislation that would kill my career as a freelance writer.
It’s the strangest political cognitive dissonance I’ve ever experienced.
Right now, my party is pushing a bill called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or the PRO Act, in an ostensible bid to help gig workers exploited by employers who won’t give them health care coverage and other benefits. But because of a problematic clause in the bill, it’s far more con than pro for me. The bill could end my ability to be my own boss, set my own hours and otherwise live the American worker’s dream.
The problem with the measure, which is being voted on by the House on Tuesday, is its way of determining who’s considered an employee. Instead of using the IRS standard, which can tell the difference between an independent contractor and an employee, it uses a far narrower standard from the 1930s — called the ABC test— that can’t.
According to the ABC test, businesses need to treat someone like me as an employee — with all the rights and benefits that entails — even if I’m writing only a single story for them. Ditto for all types of creatives who support themselves through gigs, like actors, artists and musicians. How many companies will continue to use our services under these circumstances? It’s simply not feasible.
Being an employee might sound like an improvement for me, but the least I ever made as a full-time freelancer was still far more than I ever made on someone else’s payroll. I have supported my family of four this way for 20 years. (My husband is a stay-at-home dad.) We buy health insurance on our state’s exchange — which, admittedly, isn’t cheap — but the tradeoff is worth it, because I have flexibility and independence and am not subject to the whims of an employer.
And I’m not an anomaly. According to Upwork’s 2020 Independent Workforce Report, 75 percent of independent contractors who left employers to freelance say they make the same or more money now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 79 percent of independent contractors prefer to retain their independent status over being employees.
But for the 1 in 5 American workers who are independent contractors, that option might disappear. Last year, when California enacted a bill, known as AB5, that supposedly protected gig workers from exploitation, it used the ABC test. The stories of lost work in more than 150 professions were heartbreaking.
And we heard multiple times how the law particularly hurt women, people of color and parents of children with disabilities, who often choose the flexibility of freelancing, especially if they’ve faced workplace discrimination. The Legislature later had to pass a bill to clean up the mess, and voters overturned part of it in a referendum.
California should have been a wake-up call for Democrats, but the result did nothing to stop the House from rushing to pass national legislation to enshrine the ABC test into law. (Thankfully, it looks like the Senate is a little more willing to apply the brakes.)
And that’s one of the most disappointing aspects of how this has played out. Instead of listening, Democratic lawmakers are doing what I have long criticized Republicans for: resorting to talking points that play well to a base while overlooking the facts. House rules allowed this bill to be voted on Tuesday without full committee hearings — so no chance for testimony from freelancers like me.
It would be wrong to say no one is listening, however, because the Republicans certainly are. They’ve offered amendments to eliminate the ABC test from the bill, which I am grateful for, even though I know we agree on little else.
When I reached out to my own Democratic senator here in Ohio, Sherrod Brown, his office pointed me toward another bill he introduced that he claims would fix the ABC test issue for freelancers like me. To me, this means he knows that my livelihood is at risk but would rather take California’s approach by cleaning it up after the fact — when lives have already been damaged.
Beyond that, all my colleagues and I have been hearing from Democrats in response to our concerns are talking points about how they are fighting for American workers. Don’t I count as an American worker? And if I don’t, then what exactly have I been supporting all these years?
I know what I believe in — things like an end to systemic racism, better support for families and children, increased voting rights and equity in schools. Yet now I find myself looking at Democrats’ slogans and questioning my assumption that their bills truly help the people who need it most.
I recognize that I’ve bought into broad narratives about the power of the people, usually pushing the most progressive-minded, feel-good policies that have easily repeatable language about things like the “dignity of work.” But when you’re the one whose work is suddenly threatened, it’s a bit more complicated.
The PRO Act is specifically aimed at strengthening employees’ rights to unionize, which I support, and certainly some workers are exploited by corporations that make them independent contractors to avoid paying benefits. But you know what? That’s why we have the IRS test. Use it.
But don’t enact sweeping legislation that squashes the vast majority of independent contractors and call it part of your plan “to create an economy where everyone can succeed.” It’s a great slogan, and it plays well on a Twitter video, but it’s hypocrisy as long as the ABC test is part of your plan to do it.
I still believe good ideas and earnest people will be heard. But right now, it feels like I’m being sacrificed for support from unions.
I’m still holding on to my idealistic Leslie Knope-ish tendencies. I still believe good ideas and earnest people will be heard. But right now, it feels like I’m being sacrificed for support from unions — the major interest group pushing this legislation. And given the vitriol my colleagues and I are getting on Twitter, like repeatedly being called “scabs,” I don’t think there’ll be any holiday cards this year.
I’m not looking for sympathy. After all, I’m a well-paid professional with plenty of lucky breaks to my name. What I am looking for is to be heard by the party I always believed best appreciated the breadth and width of America.
Build back better? Absolutely. But gaslighting independent contractors is a terribly poor foundation.