In California, it's always winter but never Christmas for gig workers like Santa Claus
From gender to the gig economy and location, the American labor force is changing. Here's how you compare to the average American worker. USA TODAY
California's restrictive labor laws leave the gig economy in place only for the politically connected.
COVID-19 is taking an obvious toll on Santa Claus’ ability to visit with children this year. But in California, there’s another thing stopping St. Nicholas from spreading Christmas cheer: Assembly Bill 5, or AB5.
Effective Jan. 1, 2020, the state law forces employers to hire people like Santa Claus, a man who traditionally works as an independent contractor, as a formal employee with sick leave, health care, employment protections and more. While the measure intended to help Santa and other freelance workers secure new benefits, the law is having the opposite effect, leaving him — as well as thousands of other California independent contractors — out in the cold.
“It's easier for people to be Santa Claus as an independent contractor because it is seasonal work,” explained Patrick Turnbull, a retired landscape contractor from Sunland, California, who’s worked as Santa Claus for the past 20 years. “If you were employed by somebody to be Santa Claus — well, in Southern California — there is no snow and there are no sleds in July, so what am I going to do in the meantime?”
By limiting who is allowed to be classified as an independent contractor, AB5 forces businesses to hire freelance workers such as Santa as traditional employees with benefits. But because many businesses may not be able to afford the extra benefits for occasional workers, many employers are choosing not to hire independent contractors at all.
“We’re not crying for benefits or claiming we’re being abused,” said Marguerite Kusuhara, a California-based entertainer who works as Mrs. Claus during the holiday season. “We’re very happy. The gig economy is very important. Trying to make it disappear doesn’t make any sense.”
Scrooges box out Santas
Kusuhara depends on the income she makes performing as Mrs. Claus and other characters throughout the year. Because she is the primary caregiver for her husband who suffered a stroke last year, she can’t work a traditional full-time job. But under the guise of protecting workers rights, AB5 is taking that ability away.
Much of the effects of the new law are being masked by the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused Santas — often older men with jolly, round bellies — to decline gigs on top of those they’ve already lost.
“It's as much COVID-19 as it is AB5,” Turnbull said. “2020 being what it is, we get two times the whammy.”
If the law doesn’t get repealed, Turnbull plans to establish his own business as a workaround. Doing this will relieve him from the burdens of AB5, but it will add another layer of taxes, accounting and legal hassle for someone who performs primarily for the joy he’s able to share.
Other holiday performers my organization, Independent Women's Forum, spoke with face more dire situations as a result of lost income. One Mrs. Claus was in such bad shape, she’s considering leaving the state.
Keep the joy this winter: exemptions from the jobs-killing nightmare. These industries included writers, musicians, producers and more.
In November, voters further weakened the law by approving Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that would exempt Uber, Lyft, and other ride sharing and delivery providers from having to reclassify their drivers as employees, as required under AB5. However, Santa Claus — and scores of other professions — are still stuck trying to operate under the unworkable law.
Despite its unpopularity, California is not alone in cracking down on the gig economy. Several other states are considering similar restrictions on freelance work, and the House of Representatives passed legislation earlier this year that would impose AB5-style regulations on the entire country. The GOP-controlled Senate has yet to take up the legislation, but that could change because of the 2020 election. President-elect Joe Biden “strongly supports” the federal version of AB5. California's Kamala Harris has co-sponsored the Senate's version of the bill.
Rethink success: deep pockets successfully won special exemptions. However, it’s undemocratic and unfair to leave Santa Claus — and scores of other professions — out in the cold.
He might have a thick suit and an endless supply of cookies to keep him warm, but left unchanged, AB5 will send Santa straight to the unemployment line. Anyone who does that deserves coal.
Kelsey Bolar is a senior policy analyst at Independent Women's Forum. Follow her on Twitter: @kelseybolar