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PD Editorial: State gig law puts community theater at risk

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Californians have done without many pastimes because of the coronavirus, including concerts, museums, movies and live theater.

As the pandemic nears the one-year mark, infections are declining and some cultural activities are back. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco reopened Thursday, the de Young Museum opens Saturday followed a day later by the Museum of Modern Art. In Marin County, two movie theaters resume screenings on Friday.

We hope live theater will be back soon, but some community playhouses are at risk of not coming back at all.

With shows canceled, their finances suffered during the lockdown. Of course, that’s true of countless businesses. What sets these arts groups apart is Assembly Bill 5, a state law passed in 2019 that restricts the use of independent contractors.

For community theaters, that has altered relationships with actors, musicians, costume makers, stagehands, technicians and others. For some actors and crew members, community theater is a hobby. Others are aspiring professionals looking to gain experience. Traditionally, many of them have been paid small stipends for their work on a particular show. Under AB 5, they must be full-fledged employees or unpaid volunteers.

Raising ticket prices to cover salaries and other employee expenses undercuts the model of offering an affordable alternative to expensive professional theaters, while an all-volunteer model may make it impossible for some people to participate.

With that in mind, Assemblyman Marc Levine introduced a bill to exempt community theaters from AB 5.

“California live theatre inspires us, provides needed cultural enrichment and has a significant impact on our state’s economy,” the San Rafael Democrat said in a statement announcing his legislation, AB 1227. “As we look toward a post-COVID future, AB 1227 will be an important part of ensuring the long-term sustainability of seasonal live theatre across the state.”

A thriving arts scene is a pillar of a healthy community, so we hope Levine’s bill moves quickly through the Legislature and gets signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

At the same time, however, Levine’s bill underscores the continuing disruption caused by AB 5’s blunderbuss approach to employment.

The law, strongly supported by organized labor, codified a state Supreme Court decision that established a new three-part test to determine whether someone could be classified as an independent contractor rather than as a statutory employee. A primary target of the law was gig-economy companies like Uber, Lyft and Door Dash, which responded with a ballot initiative exempting themselves from the law.

State lawmakers included exemptions in AB 5 for doctors, lawyers, securities dealer and numerous other professions. In response to objections from employers and self-employed contractors, lawmakers granted about two dozen more exemptions last year, including translators, freelance writers, youth sports officials and some, but not all, musicians. Newspapers continue to seek a permanent exemption for home-delivery carriers, and other employers and self-employed contractors want exemptions, too.

The gig economy isn’t going away. Many people prefer the flexibility of mixing work with child care, elder care or other pursuits. Employers, meanwhile, will scale back if they can’t afford higher labor costs. That benefits no one.

Levine’s theater bill is a good cause. But handing out exemptions on a case-by-case basis isn’t a long-term solution. Surely there’s a way for state lawmakers to provide more protection for independent contractors without denying flexibility desired by workers and employers.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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