Veena Dubal –
Poverty is not a suspect classification under our Constitution, but it is an affront to life and dignity and to democracy more broadly. With the evisceration of the U.S. welfare state and the judiciary’s deference to political outcomes in the area of “economics and social welfare,” employment is the primary legal and political means to address economic inequality. In turn, employment is—for better or for worse—key to our democracy. It provides access to the tools for basic sustenance in modern America: the minimum wage, health insurance, safety net protections, and even the right to organize and collectively bargain. Our capacity to participate in life and partake in politics, depends, in no small part, on our employee status. In the words of political theorist Judith Shklar, “We are citizens if we ‘earn.’” To this observation, I might add that we are citizens if we earn enough.
AB5—a bill which was just signed into law in California—is the first state law in the country to push back against an alarming trend of the last half decade: the use of app-based technology to proliferate work outside the regulatory framework of “employment.” The potential for labor platforms relying on non-employee labor to exacerbate poverty looms large in debates about the future of work and of workers. While the number of app-based workers remains comparatively small, the potential for this sector to grow and for industries to reproduce this model across the service economy looms large.
AB5 is the first significant step in pulling these workers back under the “employee” umbrella. It codifies the presumption of employee status under state law and puts forth an exacting, conjunctive test that hiring entities must meet if they wish to engage workers as non-employees. Because labor platforms have posed risks to employment regimes and the security of workers the world over, the bill has been internationally lauded and states across the U.S. seek to replicate it.
How did California manage to pass this law, and what implications might AB5 hold for the relationship between work, poverty, and democracy more broadly?