scorecard'It feels cold and heartless': Hundreds of California freelancers have been fired before the holidays due to a state law meant to help Uber and Lyft drivers
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'It feels cold and heartless': Hundreds of California freelancers have been fired before the holidays due to a state law meant to help Uber and Lyft drivers

Allana Akhtar   

'It feels cold and heartless': Hundreds of California freelancers have been fired before the holidays due to a state law meant to help Uber and Lyft drivers
StrategyStrategy5 min read
Many companies cut jobs for California freelancers right before the holidays.    Hero Images/Getty Images
  • Due to a new state law in California intended to restrict the gig economy companies like Vox Media cut jobs for freelancers directly before the holidays.
  • Business Insider spoke with eight freelancers that had either lost their jobs or were otherwise impacted by California's new state law.
  • Some freelancers, particularly ones with chronic illness, enjoyed the flexibility of working from home. Others had worked for their employers for more than a decade before the companies fired them.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

While most Americans will spend the holidays relaxing, Will Griffith needs to decide whether he should take a buyout from the freelance gig he's had for the last five years, or stick around until they terminate his contract.

Griffith was one of 200 Vox media freelancers in California who lost his job on December 16. The company nixed freelancers due to a new state law that restricts companies from hiring freelancers or gig workers. The law goes into effect January 1.

California lawmakers intended the new law, Assembly Bill 5, to help Uber and Lyft drivers get more pay and benefits for working long hours. But instead, to save money, companies responded by slashing jobs for part-time and full-time freelance workers altogether - right before the holidays.

Business Insider spoke with eight current freelancers or former freelancers who lost jobs or were impacted by AB5 - five worked for Vox's SB Nation sports websites, which employs mostly freelancers and three worked elsewhere as freelance writers. Vox did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why jobs were cut.

"That website has been a part of my life since I was reading it at 14 years old," Griffith told Business Insider regarding his work on the Vox-owned site Sactown Royalty, which covers the Sacramento Kings basketball team. "Sacramento wouldn't have an NBA team without Sactown Royalty as a rallying point. The community of readers and writers is some of the best in the country, and [Vox] completely stabbed those readers and writers in the back."

Instead of making their freelancers full-time, companies cut gig jobs in California altogether.

After California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB5 in September, many labor experts praised the bill for prohibiting companies from using freelance workers without giving them benefits like healthcare. Gov. Newsom's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Laura Padin, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, told Business Insider that companies save 30% on labor costs by using "independent contractors," or freelancers who aren't employed full-time.

But instead of paying more for labor by giving freelancers full-time status, major companies have begun cutting jobs for California freelancers altogether.

For example, Vox writers who spoke with Business Insider said that they found out their jobs were cut after the company tweeted an article thanking California freelancers and revealing that they would end their contracts.

Vox offered California freelance writers the choice to stop writing now and get paid until the end of January, or continue to get paid to write until March, according to an email reviewed by Business Insider. Vox also offered workers a chance to stick around as unpaid "insiders" who can write 35 unpaid articles a year, according to Jessica DeLine, a site manager at the SB Nation site Halo's Heaven.

California's new law bars companies from accepting more than 35 submissions a year from freelancers. DeLine estimates she spent 30 to 40 a weeks on Halo's Heaven including the time she spent watching games. She only used the money for car payments, but called cultivating a community of Los Angeles Angel's fans a "labor of love."

"It was a poorly constructed law and Vox responded to it very poorly," DeLine said. "There's a whole list of things they did I think they did poorly."

One writer for Golden State of Mind, who requested anonymity because he has another full-time job, said he found out he lost his job with SB Nation on Twitter. The writer said spent 10-15 hours a week on the site making $400. He worked with SB Nation for the last decade.

"Finding out on Twitter was like getting broken up with via text," he said. "Just feels really cold and heartless."

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Many people work as freelancers because they are disabled, or otherwise can't easily work in an office.

Some workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, said they worked long hours for their companies without receiving minimum wage and benefits. Yet many freelancer writers told Business Insider they enjoyed the flexibility of not working for a company full-time.

Michelle Mista worked as a freelance writer for the past decade, starting after she gave birth to her daughter. During her time freelancing, Mista developed an autoimmune disease.

Her chronic illness makes it hard for Mista to work certain jobs, her last full-time job was in desktop support, which requires workers to be on their feet. Mista said she runs the risk of getting tired and not being able to care for her daughter without a full-time desk job.

"Looking at my health, not being able to rest or modify my activities as I need is going to have an impact on my work and contribute to pain," Mista said. "It's just going to upend everything my family has planned."

Of the 57 million gig workers in 2019, 46% said they chose to freelance because they were "unable to work for a traditional employer due to personal circumstances," according to an annual study from gig work marketplace Upwork. Alisha Grauso, coleader of California Freelance Writers United, said freelancers are more likely to be disabled or older.

Many now unemployed California freelancers don't know what they will do next.

Matthew Lowry, an editor for the Vox-owned University of Southern California focused athletic site Conquest Chronicles, found out his freelance contracted got terminated in an email Monday morning. Lowry estimated he wrote 12 articles a month for the site, using the money as supplemental income on top of his high school coaching job.

Lowry said his plans to watch USC basketball and baseball games are "out the window" now that he can't write about them. The hardest part for him was telling his mom that he won't get paid from Vox to write anymore.

"I don't like telling my parents or my family I'm not longer going to be writing for something I enjoy doing," Lowry said. "You're not going to see my articles anymore because I got let go."

Don Ayres went into freelancing after getting laid off from a radio job. Exactly seven years later, Ayres said he lost his freelancer gig too. While the gig gave him a stipend to get him through the holidays, freelancing made up his primary income source and he doesn't have another full-time job lined up.

"Luckily they gave me a little bit of a parting bonus that's enough for the holidays," Ayres told Business Insider. "But beyond that, who knows."

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