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Many legislative efforts have taken a backseat during the coronavirus pandemic, but the debate over AB 5 – the new law that limits when employers can classify workers as independent contractors – is as fierce as ever, and in some ways has been amplified by the crisis.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution this week urging enforcement of AB 5 amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“Without assistance, these workers face many uncertainties, including housing and food insecurity, no access to health care, exposure to COVID-19 without safety training, sanitation and protective equipment and more,” the resolution states. It also cites San Diego’s successful enforcement action against Instacart over worker classification.

Lyft, unsurprisingly, objected to the action.

“Attempting to force [transportation network companies] to adopt an employment model in the midst of this crisis would result in the widespread elimination of work for hundreds of thousands and the immediate interruption of essential services for vulnerable populations. It will hurt drivers and at-risk communities at a time when they need our services most,” CJ Macklin, senior communications manager for Lyft, wrote in a statement.

Meanwhile, the same groups and politicians that have always been opposed to the measure are urging the state to put it on hold amid the pandemic.

The Orange County Register’s editorial board urged the governor to suspend the law. Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who introduced multiple measures aimed at killing AB 5 before the crisis hit, wrote a letter to the governor asking him to use his emergency powers to suspend the law.

The Republican National Committee picked up on the message and sent out an email telling the governor to suspend the law.

Gonzalez, also unsurprisingly, said the coronavirus has amplified the need for the law, not diminished it.

She said that after the law passed she heard from a group of tech support workers at UC San Diego who were reclassified from contractors to employees in December.

“As a result, now, if his hours are reduced, he’ll be eligible for unemployment insurance,” she said. “Undoing what we’ve already granted workers as far as these rights now would just be horrendous. To suggest somehow that we should have health care workers going into facilities as independent contractors – if they were to get the virus, they wouldn’t have workers’ comp, unemployment insurance, paid sick days. If anything, I think we do understand now why it’s so important.”

Though Gonzalez has said that lawmakers will likely be scaling back their bill packages this year to focus on the coronavirus, she said certain efforts to revise AB 5 are still under way, including changes impacting freelance journalists and musicians, and clarifications to the business-to-business exemption.

San Diego Unified Asks the State for Tens of Millions More

New costs to shift all students to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic are expected to pile up, according to the superintendents of the San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified school districts, who asked state legislators for more emergency funds totaling $3 billion statewide this week. If granted, San Diego Unified would receive roughly $51.5 million in additional emergency funds for 103,000 students.

The request received a generally warm reception from some members of the San Diego delegation, including Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who expressed the most support. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez had a chillier response and wanted to see the schools’ plan before writing a check.

San Diego’s superintendent Cindy Marten along with Los Angeles Unified chief Austin Beutner requested an extra $500 per student Monday, beyond their routine funding and the $100 million in state emergency funds already given to schools statewide for cleaning and protective gear.

Details about what exactly the districts want to spend that money on are scant, though Los Angeles Unified said in the press release it’s already spending $100 million to purchase 150,000 devices and provide internet for students who don’t have it, and online training for educators and families. Their total ask this week tops $325 million.

San Diego Unified’s request totals roughly $51.5 million for its 103,000 students. San Diego schools already have technology devices for every student and are working to disburse them, officials told the San Diego Union-Tribune. No internet deals to fill gaps for students have been announced, and district officials didn’t answer VOSD’s inquiries this week.

“I applaud the superintendents and their staffs for taking initiative, but I’m not ready to commit to supporting a specific number at this time without having more details about the scope of a distant learning program, what if any federal assistance will be available to schools and the choices available to parents to allow their students to repeat a grade or send them to summer school,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

Atkins also mentioned the possibility of federal support for schools.

“In these unprecedented times, the Legislature is working overtime to support all our communities – including our schools,” Atkins said in a statement. “We will also need the support of our federal partners to find appropriate funding solutions as we tackle this challenge. I will continue to work with SDUSD to find the right solutions.”

Gloria also said he’s been in “constant contact” with San Diego Unified and understands the struggle they face “to provide an equitable education to all their students.”

“We should be supporting our schools at this time and that includes how we can make distance learning and other support services work,” Gloria said in a statement. “My staff and I have passed along this request to the governor’s office. We are doing what we can to help the district during this difficult time. Additional action would be necessary to approve the funding. I know the state is juggling multiple funding requests right now, but I commend the resources and support the governor and my colleagues in the Legislature have already given our schools. Hopefully we can add to them.”

Waldron said in a statement she thinks “the state needs to work with school districts to put in place comprehensive procedures and infrastructure for emergency distance learning. I am committed to working with the governor, school districts and my legislative colleagues to address this issue.”

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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