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May 20, 2020

What a Crisis Highlights

By Matthew Allen

Crises generally have a way of highlighting elements in our lives that are important as well as those that are not. The COVID-19 crisis has done so to a degree that is inescapable, across all aspects of our lives. It has impacts upon our health, livelihood, social interactions, education system, and the list goes on. We all see the effects swirling around us as we work to maneuver into different ways of thinking and creatively finding new solutions to meet our daily challenges.

The agricultural industry has been absolutely heroic in meeting the COVID-19 crisis head-on. Our industry is specifically identified as an essential service. Growers and farmworkers are doing all they can to continue planting and harvesting crops to ensure that the people of our state and nation are provided with the highest quality food. The significance of this is even more profound since our industry is facing severe economic pressures from the closure of restaurants and schools. Perhaps our “new normal” has brought to the forefront a better understanding of our food system and how closely tied it is to our national security.

Businesses are doing everything possible to stay afloat and provide economic opportunities to their workers while adhering to the state and local social distancing protocols. For far too many, this is simply not possible, and we have seen the state’s unemployment rate shoot skyward in March and April. Indeed, it is anticipated that the unemployment rate will continue to expand until the stay at home orders are lifted and businesses reopen.

It is because of this landscape that it is so troubling to hear some state officials doubling down on a law like AB 5 which was passed last year. AB 5 codified the 2018 California Supreme Court Dynamex decision and made additional clarifications about when someone is or is not an independent contractor. The problems with the new statute are numerous. It has a very complicated framework that employers are supposed to follow in determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. Additionally, it creates disjointed sets of carve-outs and exclusions for some industries and job functions while leaving out others that operate in the same manner. Unsurprisingly, passage of this law led to immediate mass confusion and to a large number of pre–COVID-19 layoffs.

Now we hear from state officials how important this law is and that the California Labor Commissioner should do everything possible to enforce this law. In the face of the severe damage that has occurred to our economy and to livelihoods, shouldn’t the discussion be focused on either repealing AB 5 or significantly fixing it in order to deal with everyday realities? Debating the facts about whether someone is or is not an independent contractor and causing businesses great confusion about how to employ a worker seem relatively superfluous during this time of crisis.

It is also very concerning to be seeing the California Air Resources Board continue to push forward on new regulatory concepts to reduce emissions in California; instead of pushing a pause button. There are many programs in the “hopper” to increase vehicle electrification. These include proposals on transportation refrigeration units as well as an idea to require truck manufacturers to manufacture a specific number of electric trucks. The environmental justice advocates have pounced on the photos of empty highways and smog free air to bolster their advocacy that we need to do more at a faster rate.

To be clear, clean air is important, but it seems rather trite to be having this discussion now. The empty highways and completely smog free air are the result of the stay-at-home orders as well as the very unpleasant fact that tens of thousands of Californians now find themselves without a job.

WG staff remains focused on highlighting the essential nature of our industry: providing safe and nutritious food. This, along with the health of our family, friends, and neighbors, should be our top of mind concern right now.