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Take that, you independent contractors!

September 15, 2019

I see that California AB5 has passed. I don’t view that as a good thing. Allow me to explain why.

It is important to note that there are indeed companies that use a person’s independent contractor status as a way of reducing cost. That, I submit, is not inherently wrong. It is, however, a problem if they paint independent contractor status as a panacea for all the things many people don’t like about being an employee. They gloss over the challenges of being an independent contractor. Many people are astonished at the sheer number and nature of challenges they face with such a status. So, it’s a problem. It’s also not the employers problem to solve unless they are clearly being misleading. As an employee, my employers made a big deal about my compensation package. They didn’t talk a lot about the realities of my tax obligations or the limitations of other parts of my compensation, other than (sometimes) in passing. It was not their problem. I was obligated to pay my taxes regardless of not receiving tax advice from my employee. Their obligation was limited to making sure I filled out the proper paperwork (my W-4) and sending me my W-2 every year. And so it is with independent contractors.

I’ve been an independent contractor. I like it because I like being my own boss. I like having my own business and the benefits is provides when I run it like a business. And that, from my observation, is the problem with many would-be independent contractors. They don’t treat their business like a business. What does that mean?

Here are what I think are the general rules for success as an employee.

  • Show up for work, on time, every workday
  • Dress appropriately for the job
  • Be ready to work when you arrive
  • Work hard your entire shift or until the job is done and your employer tells you to go home
  • If it is available, work the overtime you can
  • Do the above consistently, day in and day out

That’s it. Back when I was a manager of various parts of a hospital (I have managed Operating Rooms, Central Supply, PACU, and even the entirety of Surgical Services. I’ve also been the Chief Nursing Officer at a psych hospital, the only C-suite job I’ve ever had and the one I enjoyed more than any other). Employees always ask the new boss “what do you expect from us?” My answer is always some form of the above, usually “show up on time, dressed for work and ready to do your job. Do your job until it’s time to go home and then leave. Come back the next day and do it again.” Most of us accept that when we work for someone else. After all, we don’t want to be fired. It’s only when we start working for ourselves that we get stupid.

Let’s say I become an independent contractor or start some other kind of business. I want to be my own boss. It’s a problem if I don’t actually know what an effective boss or business owner does. Quite often, what I know is what I think a boss or business owner does.* Unfortunately, what I think and the reality are often not even remotely the same. I often won’t see the boss or owner getting into work early or staying late. I don’t see him taking the work home. I don’t see her changing major family plans at the last minute because something has come up that she, and only she, can handle. Likewise, I don’t see how the business owner sets up a single room of his house as an office, not just for the tax benefit but also as a way of helping support that mindset that says “when I enter this room, I am at work and must act like it.” Instead, what I see is a person who is seldom on the floor because other than making rounds, the demands of owning and/or running a business keep her tied to her desk – except when she is doing the myriad of other things only she can do. Or, what I see is a guy who stays after everyone else leaves because he’s greedy, when in reality he’s agonizing over how to make the thing work. Or, I see the owner of a home-based business as a person with lots of free time, rather than a person who must discipline himself to work when he wants to play and who has to insist that others respect his work hours even though he works at home in his boxers.

In other words, people often fail as independent contractors because they don’t understand that to be an independent contractor is to own your own business. Or, they don’t understand the implications of owning your own business and the level of commitment it requires.

Take my meager attempts at writing as an example. If I am to have any hope of success at this, I must treat it like a business. Regardless of how many hours per day or week I can dedicate to it, during those hours I must be either writing or doing the things that allow me to write, like research for a story. I could also include things like making the meetings for my writer’s group to increase my accountability and to gain the benefit of multiple sets of critical eyes. Things that do not contribute are not “writing work.” Hours spent combing over the folders and filing systems at Office Depot are not work. Carefully selecting cute screensavers is not writing work. Those are just ways of organizing paperclips instead of doing what I don’t feel like doing at the time.

It’s worth noting that there was a lot of union support for AB5. That should hardly be surprising. Unions have never been terribly enamored of independent contractors. Back when union membership was higher, there weren’t as many and so independent contractors were viewed as low payoff for scant return. Now, though, membership is down, unions in many places are struggling to remain relevant, and there are more independents. I’m not impressed by some supposed concern on the part of unions for the woes of the independent contractor. As incredibly necessary as they were at one time in the US (and may sometimes still be), unions have,in my opinion become the very thing they ostensibly oppose. To wit, they are large, powerful organizations that lie and manipulate in order to exploit workers for the benefit of union leadership and power.** Their support of AB5 is an example of that search for power. It’s not just politicians who are opposed to individual liberty.

*Note that we often see the same thing in the military. Some junior enlisted guy thinks he knows what Chiefs or officers do (especially officers as Chiefs are better at building leadership awareness in those who seem likely to make it to E-7 and above, whereas officers don’t always do a good job of mentoring enlisted folks into becoming mustangs). So, when he or she finishes the degree and then takes a commission as a brand new ensign, there comes that “holy s***” moment when the enormity of the job washes over the young officer.

**As a person who grew up in a union family, who married into a union family and who has been both a union member and manager in a collective bargaining environment, I have seen their good and their bad. As a general rule, I am no longer a fan. On the other hand, it’s kind of cool that I know all the words and chords to The Ballad of Joe Hill and to every song written by Woody Guthrie. 

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One Comment
  1. OldNFO permalink

    As with anyone successful, it comes down to ‘going to work’ every day, even if it is in your den/office. And putting in the hours and hours it takes. And dedication to your principles, so that you actually DO accomplish what you set out to do.

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