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Judge says freelance journalists missed deadline to challenge California labor law

New California labor law under fire

SACRAMENTO, California — A federal judge Monday would not temporarily exempt freelance journalists and photographers from a new California labor law that makes it harder for companies to claim workers are independent contractors instead of employees.

The judge said they waited too long to challenge the restrictions, despite claiming the new rules could put some of them out of business.

U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez in Los Angeles denied the temporary restraining order sought by two freelancers' organizations while he takes more time to consider their objections to the law.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association, represented by the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, sued in December to stop the law from going into effect.

A hearing on their request isn't scheduled until March. An attorney who sued on behalf of the groups said Monday that the harm to their profession is immediate from the new law known as AB 5, which took effect with the new year.

"Freelance journalists in California are losing work each day AB 5 remains in effect," Jim Manley, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, said in an email. However, he said the judge's decision to wait for a full hearing "is understandable given the gravity of the issues."

Employee or contractor: What's the difference?

The judge said the groups waited three months to sue after the bill was signed into law, and just two weeks before it took effect. They sought the temporary restraining order just a day before it became effective.

"Plaintiffs' delay belies their claim that there is an emergency," Gutierrez said in his ruling Friday. There would have been time for a full hearing had they "promptly filed" their objections, he wrote.

The law limits freelance writers and photographers to 35 submissions annually per media outlet before they must be considered employees—a limit that the lawsuit calls "irrational and arbitrary." The digital sports media company SB Nation, owned by Vox Media, announced even before the law took effect that it was cutting ties with more than 200 California freelancers, switching instead to using a much smaller number of new employees.

Truckers are luckier

But a different federal judge temporarily blocked the law from impacting more than 70,000 independent truckers, ruling the state law is preempted by federal law when it comes to their profession that frequently crosses interstate borders.

The truckers sued in November, claiming the law would force them to abandon six-figure investments made in their trucks and the right to set their own schedules.

Most attention has been on the law's attempt to give wage and benefit protections to people who work for ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft. These companies recently unveiled a $90 million effort to exempt their drivers from the law, which they hope to put on the ballot in California later this year.

Uber is also unveiling a modified version of its app for California, the Washington Post reported. The California app aims to give drivers more say over their own business by allowing them to see a fare before accepting it and to refuse trips without being penalized by Uber's rating system, the Post reported.

Uber and Postmates, the on-demand meal delivery service, also sued California last year, arguing that the law violates federal and state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. They want their objections linked to the freelancers' lawsuit and considered by the same judge.

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