Supporting Workers in Gig Professions is Complicated

Becky O'Malley
Saturday January 11, 2020 - 11:36:00 AM

The law of unintended consequences is alive and well and living in Sacramento. A well-intended bill which seemed to be designed to correct inequities affecting drivers of on-demand car services like Uber and Lyft is causing an uproar among small arts production organizations among others.

An onine posting from one of the Bay Area’s excellent small-scale low budget professional production companies, Alameda’s Island City Opera, tipped me off:

“It is with a heavy heart that, due to circumstances beyond our control, we must postpone our current plans for the March 2020 production of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers. “As of January 1, 2020 the State of California put into effect new regulations. Island City Opera (ICO), with the guidance of legal counsel, has determined that these new rules apply to ICO and present significant new administrative and financial requirements. The ICO management team is investigating exactly what is required to meet the new rules and developing a plan for the future.”
The villain is Assembly Bill 5, which was authored by California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on September 18th, 2019, to take effect on January 1, 2020.

Groups like Island City recruit performers from an itinerant contingent of professional actors, singers and other musicians who need to assemble a lot of different jobs to create something like a living wage. That’s where the term “gig economy” originated—jazz musicians back in the day called their engagements “gigs´. Wikipedia claims that the word originated in the 1920s and is short for “engagement”. That might just be folk etymology, but regardless of origin, this term has been adopted for all kinds of short-term work.

Some musicians and actors at some points in history have achieved the goal of steady work with the aid of Actors’ Equity and the American Federation of Musicians, but the vast majority of those who entertain us in the Bay and elsewhere must go it on their own with no union to back them up. Many go back and forth between managing productions and appearing in them. Professionals usually get small fees and they are supported by a lot of unpaid volunteers.  

Soprano Eliza O’Malley, who is also Executive Director of Berkeley Chamber Opera and a voice teacher at East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere, has been hearing from colleagues in other companies, including Island City, about the problems that AB 5 has created for small arts organizations like the ones she works with. [Full disclosure: she’s my daughter.] 

Here’s what she posted on the BCO Facebook page: 

“Thanks to Janos Gereben for shedding light on the effects of putting AB5 into place without full consideration of the ramifications for the arts. I contributed [this] statement to his article in San Francisco Classical Voice as someone who contracts artists for my opera company: ‘The music community in the Bay Area is very tightly knit, and in our little microcosm Berkeley Chamber has already felt the effects. BCO plans to present Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in April. Many of the people we contracted to work in the show, such as our conductor and several singers, were also engaged to work for Island City Opera for their March production of Wreckers. ‘We very carefully crafted a rehearsal schedule that would enable people to work for both companies without conflict. Collaborations such as this are one of the reasons small companies and independent artists can survive. ‘Collectively we offer full employment to local artists. It is unfortunate that ICO has had to weigh the risk of violating AB5 and withdraw their production. It is a shame that after all of the effort people have put into nurturing the community, that the structure could crumble so quickly’ 

On the web, she continued the discussion: 

“ I’ve also been thinking about this in relation to myself as an employee. While I agree with the bill’s sponsors whose goal is to provide needed basic health coverage and worker’s comp for all workers- especially the most vulnerable, I just don’t think this is a practical solution that reflects the realities of today's workforce. “In my own case being an “employee” at one of the many places I am paid to sing or teach singing gave me very little benefit last year when I suffered an injury to my vocal cords. I didn’t for a minute think that I could claim that my injury happened during one of the 7 hours a week I was on the clock for that employer. It could have or couldn’t have. Who knows? It wasn't something I wanted to spend a second thinking about at the time. I was preoccupied with researching the best treatment options for my injury. Imagine if each of the many organizations I work for had had to duke it out over who would cover the sick leave and surgery I eventually needed? In actuality, I was able to get treatment through Medi-Cal. I qualified because my contract work allowed me to file a schedule C and my taxes accurately reflected my low cobbled together income. “This kind of coverage is what Democrats in California should be fighting for for everyone. Healthcare should be a right regardless of who your employer is or how many jobs you do or don't have. Accident insurance should be a right no matter who your employer is. Social Security and retirement should be a right no matter who your employer is. 

“I don’t even buy the argument that they were just trying to make Uber and Lyft pay their fair share anymore. If that were the case, they would tax the company’s eventual profits, and put the money back into these social services. The gig economy isn't the problem. Artists benefit from the flexibility of gigs like Uber and Lyft. Lots of singers drive for these companies on breaks between rehearsals and the work provides the on-demand flexibility they need to make ends meet. Why use workers as pawns and give us even more red tape to wade through in order to get services that should simply be a human right?” 

There are many kinds of work that never produce profits but are socially beneficial none the less. Believe it or not, in some countries citizens not only have single-payer national health insurance provided by the government but governments also support the arts in numerous direct ways. Why can’t we do it here? 

Journalism is another necessary endeavor that isn’t fully self-supporting anymore. Some workers in the top tier of the corporate media benefited historically from unions like the Newspaper Guild, but as print media vanishes steady union jobs do too. In my youth I was involved in founding two organizations which hoped to negotiate on behalf of freelance writers for adequate pay and benefits and equitable treatment in what at that time was called alternative media. Sadly, though those writers’ organizations still exist in altered form, their alternative outlets have disappeared. Many of my freelancer colleagues from the ‘70s and ‘80s have moved on to other fields as the print publications they wrote for have vanished or shrunk. .I got to the point where I could sell every word I wrote, and I’m a pretty fast writer, but I still couldn’t call it a living--luckily I had other options. 

And the pay still sucks, where there is any. When I tried to be an employer of journalists for the print Planet, we paid barely respectable salaries, but still never broke even. Other area print news publications have shut down or laid off most of their reporters. 

I happen to like music, especially opera and other classical music, jazz and folky stuff of various kinds, none of which have huge affluent audiences. In all of these fields, full time conventional employment is scarce for anyone but international superstars, but some musicians can collect enough smaller gigs supplemented by other kinds of work to keep afloat. It would be a shame to lose the underfunded small arts companies like Island City Opera because AB 5 has targeted Lyft and Uber—kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

The Sacramento office of AB5’s author, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, told me that she’s working on amendments which would correct the unintended consequences to the arts, but her office worker couldn’t tell me where or when the public would have input on what changes are needed. They said the clean-up bill has been introduced as AB 1850, but they could tell me nothing about hearings or committee assignments. 

If you care about this, call Assemblymember Gonzalez’s Sacramento office and raise hell. The number is (916) 319-2080.