Harris belatedly joins other presidential candidates in California fight over “gig” workers

Updated August 24, 2019

What was once an obscure, weedsy legal battle over labor classification in California is now well on its way to becoming a capital-I Issue on the presidential campaign trail.

Weeks after Sen. Elizabeth Warren took a public stand on one of the most controversial bills being considered by California lawmakers, Sen. Kamala Harris now says she supports a bill to would make it harder for “gig economy” companies to classify their workers as independent contractors.

As California’s junior senator, Harris has been hounded by reporters for her position on the high-profile bill for over a week. That’s in part because the proposal is coming from her home state. But critics have also attributed the radio silence on the issue from the Harris campaign to a potential conflict of interest. Tony West, who is married to Maya Harris, the senator’s sister and campaign manager, is general counsel for Uber, which vociferously opposes the law.

Earlier this month, Warren wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee supporting a California bill that would make it harder for companies to classify workers as “independent contractors.” In the process, she not only waded into what has largely been a California-specific debate, but provided yet another way to distinguish herself from the many other Democrats in what remains a very crowded field hoping to unseat President Donald Trump.

“All Democrats need to stand up and say, without hedging, that we support AB 5 and back full employee status for gig workers,” she said.

Warren’s very public declaration comes a few months after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders penned a similar op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he called for national legislation to “bar these employers (like Lyft and Uber) from continuing to misclassify their employees.”

A spokesperson for the Sanders campaign said that the senator “strongly supports AB5.”

The bill, authored by San Diego Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, takes aim at gig economy titans like Uber, Lyft and Doordash whose drivers and delivery personnel are classified as self-employed entrepreneurs and therefore exempt from minimum wage guarantees and other legal protections extended to employees. The bill would codified a state Supreme Court ruling from last year (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles), which applied a new, more restrictive “ABC” standard for labor classification in the case of a contract security guard.

As CalMatters has reported earlier this summer, the bill could also shake up traditional corners of the labor market as well, reclassifying truck drivers, nail salon workers and strippers.

Responding by email, Gonzalez said she thought it was “pretty damn cool” that her bill had the full throated backing of a major presidential candidate.

While Warren is the first candidate to take such an unambiguous and public position on AB5, others have staked out similar stances in other ways.

  • Last year, immediately following the California Supreme Court ruling, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would write the stricter Dynamex ruling into national labor law. 
  • While passing through San Francisco in June for the California Democratic Convention, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told a gathering of Service Employees International Union members that “if you’re working, that makes you a worker.” 

Warren might not seem an obvious champion of a California bill. Her recent hire of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s former communications director, Kevin Liao, may have helped put the issue on her radar. (Asked about his role, Liao responded in an email: “I’m just a humble member of the team.”)

Graphic by Judy Lin

But her position on the issue also reflects California’s new prominence on the presidential primary calendar. With poll places opening on March 3, giving Californians who vote by mail the opportunity to cast their ballot as early as the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, making a good impression on policymakers and voters here could be a worthwhile investment.

The campaigns of California presidential contender and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has not yet responded when asked their position on the bill. Neither have the campaigns for Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Dan Morain contributed to this story.

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