Is AB5 closing the curtain on community theater?
UPDATE, March 7, 2020: A new bill, AB 2075, would provide a Grace Period for AB 5 compliance through the rest of 2020. The bill, proposed by Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), seeks to help the thousands of independent contractors and freelancers currently trying to navigate how to comply with AB5. Click here for more on AB 2075.
Contra Costa Musical Theater is the latest casualty of AB5, the new “gig-worker” law authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales (D-San Diego) and signed into law last September by Gavin Newsom.
The law, meant to be a stake to the heart of Uber and Lyft, requires most independent contractors to be classified as W2 employees unless they are a “business” as defined by the highly restrictive definition in AB5.
An email yesterday from Danny Boyle, managing director of CCMT, confirmed what many had suspected. The theater can’t afford the cost of reclassifying the dozens of volunteer actors, dancers, musicians, stagehands and technicians that are paid a small stipend to help offset the personal expenses that come with a passion for theater. Because of that, the venerable 59-year-old community theater group will go dark at the end of February.
The Lesher Center will take over production of the spring show “9 to 5; The Musical,” already in rehearsal. Boyle will retire at the end of February after 19 years with the company, and there will be no 2020-’21 season.
CCMT was founded in August 1961, for the express purpose of producing Broadway musicals. With the opening of the Lesher Center for the Arts in 1990, the award-winning company found a permanent home where they could mount full-scale productions in the 800-seat Hofmann Theater.
“The ‘ripple effect’ of AB5 cannot be discounted,” Boyle writes.
“Not only will theatre goers be denied the quality local entertainment they have come to rely upon, but the Lesher Arts Center will not have CCMT in residence for the 10 weeks we have previously booked; neighborhood eateries may be denied a measure of patronage; and city-operated parking facilities may experience a downturn in revenues. You understand what I’m saying.”
‘Protecting’ gig workers
AB5 designed primarily to protect Uber and Lyft drivers from exploitation went into effect January 1.
However far from protecting workers, the law is having a devastating effect on the performing arts and dozens of other professionals that typically work as independent contractors.
Freelance writers including journalists, court reporters, interpreters, translators, tutors, yoga instructors, life coaches, delivery drivers are just a handful of the gig workers that find themselves out of work; collateral damage from an overreaching, poorly written law passed overwhelmingly by lawmakers pitifully unaware of the far reaching consequences.
Professionals saw their once lucrative careers dry up almost overnight as their clients—corporations, small businesses and non-profits—cancelled contracts. They are either unable to afford the cost of converting their contractors and “volunteers” to employees, or simply unwilling to deal with California employment rules requiring minimum wage, Worker’s Compensation, and health and unemployment benefits.
Dozens of theaters and similar community entities are closing down, freezing operations, or are in a state of panic having to now hire attorneys to help them define how their operations will be viewed and treated under this new law.
Sylvia Amorino Gonzalez, director of Concord-based Solo Opera Company, does not see a future past this summer. The small company’s tight budget left no room to absorb the 30 percent increased cost of reclassifying the two dozen performers and supporting professionals needed for their August production. Gonzalez covered the increase with personal funds.
Can it be fixed?
As lawmakers wake up to the mess created with AB5, pressure grows to find a fix, but there is little agreement on how.
There are 33 separate bills being circulated, each exempting a specific occupation or group, and more on the way.
Today, an emergency measure by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) to repeal AB5 failed to make it to the Assembly floor for a vote. With that, hope died for independent contractors waiting for relief this year.
According to Audrey Detmer, director of communications for Assemblyman Tim Grayson, the bill was an attempt to bypass regular constitutional procedure and was referred back to the Labor and Employment Committee.
Charles Jarrett contributed to this article.
Related story: Musicians, freelancers see livelihood threatened by new state law