In 2003, I walked away from my full-time, $80,000-a-year job as the executive editor of a national magazine. I had no other job lined up; I just had a hunch, having worked in the publishing business for about a decade, that I could have a better work-life balance and make a lot more money if I put out a shingle as a freelance writer and editor.
As it turns out, I was right. Today, I work fewer hours, I work only the hours I want, and I make six figures. I’m happier, I get to pick my projects, and I get to choose which editors I want in my life. I am 47 years old with a career that is successful in pretty much every way.
But that career will no longer exist if my home state of New Jersey and other states like it continue on their current path with independent contractor legislation, putting freelance journalists like me out of business.
In early November, New Jersey followed California’s lead and introduced Senate Bill 4204. Nicknamed the “Uber Bill,” it is a version of California’s recently passed law intended to solve a problem with the growing gig economy. That problem, the states say, is that gig economy companies classify workers as independent contractors, rather than employees, which means businesses can exploit workers by failing to give them health and other benefits, and that they don’t have taxes taken out of their paychecks. New Jersey’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development is going after Uber and its subsidiary in the courts for what the state says are about $650 million in unpaid taxes in my home state alone.
New Jersey’s legislation, happening at the same time as the court action, is intended to solve that worker misclassification problem by doing what California’s AB5 did: codifying a legal standard for what an independent contractor is. Other states, including New York, are expected to introduce similar independent contractor legislation next, and presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have said they support this type of legislation going forward.
The laws are being marketed as pro-worker, but the way they are being written is so strict that they are already starting to destroy the careers of people such as me who prefer to work for ourselves.
As a six-figure freelancer, I am not the same as an Uber worker who may feel exploited. I have health insurance, I have a retirement account, and I have an accountant who makes sure I pay my taxes every quarter.
The language in these independent contractor laws, though, makes no meaningful distinction between exploited contract workers and people like me. Instead, the language makes it impossible for people like me to work within the letter of the law.
New Jersey’s S4204, for instance, says I have to do all my work “outside all of the places of business of the employer.” That means I can’t spend even one or two days of an 18-month, front-page project outside my home office, having meetings with my editors in a place like The Washington Post’s newsroom. How is any freelancer, no matter whether she is a journalist or a graphic artist or a public-relations specialist, supposed to run her business if she never takes meetings on any client’s premises? The upshot of clauses like that one in S4204 could be crippling fines for employers. And because of that threat, according to testimony given during a standing-room-only hearing in New Jersey’s capitol last week, editors and publishers in New Jersey are already saying the same thing the ones in California are starting to say to freelancers there: Thanks, you’re great, but we’ll find our writers and proofreaders elsewhere.
These states, in writing such overly broad legislation, are hanging a giant, toxic, neon sign around the necks of the middle class. As these laws spread across the country, everyone from truck drivers to caterers to yoga instructors has their livelihood in the crosshairs. The people testifying in New Jersey that their careers would be hit have ranged from lawyers to wedding photographers to bakers. Newspaper representatives tried to explain that people who deliver those papers are independent contractors, and if this legislation becomes law, citizens will no longer get their local news delivered to their homes. The lawmakers seemed genuinely stunned about how many jobs operate under the independent contractor model in modern-day America. They really seemed to have no clue.
Those of us who choose to be independent contractors are not a small group of people. The Labor Department, as of 2018, said 1 in 10 Americans was working as an independent contractor. And while union membership hit an all-time low in the United States in 2018, Intuit and Emergent Research say the number of Americans working in the gig economy will grow from 3.9 million in 2016 to 9.2 million by 2021.
The lawmakers writing this legislation have no idea who the millions of us choosing to be independent contractors are, or how our industries operate, or why we want to remain our own bosses. Here in New Jersey, the power behind this legislation is state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a 60-year-old high school graduate with no higher education on his résumé, and whose day job is serving as vice president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. His worldview matches that of the senators we came up against in the hearing room; they seem to truly believe we’re all just confused about our ability to protect our own best interests.
“I think the fervor being built against these bills is largely made by large companies that want to continue to exploit workers,” Sweeney told Fortune this week. “A true 1099 worker, we’re not doing anything to you. We’re not attacking that worker, they wound everyone up to a frenzy right now.”
Based on the outcry that has erupted in New Jersey in the past few weeks, those of us in a frenzy are at the point of exasperation for good reason. The people raising their voices against this legislation include working mothers who need flexible schedules to care for kids. They are people who have a spouse or child with a chronic illness, and who need to be able to work between doctor’s appointments. They are people with disabilities who need to work whenever they feel up to it. They are people in professions that traditionally welcome women, jobs like marketing, publishing, public relations, teaching and communications, but where full-time opportunities are not what they used to be. They are people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who can thrive as independent contractors, but who, because of ageism, are likely to be last on the list as a full-time hire.
Because of the uproar — much of it caused by my fellow writers and me, who have been publishing op-eds, banding together on Facebook, jamming statehouse phone lines and more — lawmakers are now saying they may try to rework this deeply flawed legislation yet again. (Some of us, including me, met with Sweeney and his staff this past week to discuss it.) They are also saying that even if, on paper, people like me are made into lawbreakers for taking an in-person meeting with an editor, the state will interpret the law in a way that favors us. Believe them, they say. They promise.
To me, that last bit sounds an awful lot like “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Frankly, I’m terrified, and everyone who works happily as an independent contractor should be, too. The independent contractor laws now being written in a handful of states are setting precedents for how the language is going to be written across the country. If we screw this up in New Jersey now, then millions of Americans stand to be screwed over later.
It’s time for an in-depth, smart, nuanced national conversation about the meaning of the term independent contractor in the Age of the Gig Economy. We are the United States of America. We put men on the moon, invented the personal computer and cured polio. Surely, we can figure out a way to write legislation that protects both an exploited Uber driver and a six-figure freelancer.