Carl Szabo is vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, a trade organization.
President Biden campaigned on making the workplace more accessible for women, but his remarks during April's State of the Union unfortunately missed the mark by pushing legislation that would keep working mothers out. Like many parents, my wife stopped working when the pandemic forced schools to close; she became the de facto teacher and caregiver in our home. She set aside her career as a child therapist to take care of our family and focus on the needs of our children.
Telehealth work as an independent contractor gave her the flexibility to work on her own terms while still taking care of our kids. She could make sure our kids got through their virtual school day and then see clients when I got home from work.
But now, Biden is pushing the PRO Act, legislation that mirrors California's AB 5, which could make independent contracting unviable. Though the PRO Act is described as "jobs-creating legislation" — and is gaining traction both as a standalone piece and a buried portion of the Infrastructure Bill — it would keep out a large portion of the 1.5 million moms who are still unable to go back to work because of COVID-19.
The bill conscripts worker protections to support union employees and redefines exactly what it means to be an employee or employer. In doing so, it disregards and decimates the freedoms that drive the peer-to-peer and freelance economies.
The PRO Act would make it far more difficult for Americans to take one-off jobs or side gigs. And for working parents, this could mean less flexibility for jobs like dog-walking, freelance writing or graphic design, and through apps like TaskRabbit and Uber.
A third of working mothers and fathers everywhere already find the work-family balance of COVID-19 harder to manage, according to a Pew study. But the PRO Act could artificially force working parents into an employee classification they might not want. Worse, the PRO Act could push businesses to cut salaries as they cover additional overhead costs for accounting, human resources and new services like health insurance that workers may not want or already have through partners or other jobs.
The disastrous impact of this anti-worker provision isn't speculation. When AB 5 passed in California, hundreds of companies in the state laid off their employees. Sign language interpreters, musicians, journalists and many others who were put out of work as businesses began looking to make up for the added costs. And unfortunately for my family, a federal version of AB 5, like the PRO Act, could mean putting my wife out of work, too.
Even if my wife could return to contract work, it might mean less money for our family. The PRO Act would force her employer to provide her with health care. Though this could help ease the burden of out-of-pocket health care for some people, other people might not need it. For instance, my wife — who is already covered by my insurance and doesn't need employer-provided health care — could earn less because her employer would likely take her portion straight out of her compensation.
Because the PRO Act redefines what it means to be an employee and eliminates much of the ability to contract independently in certain contexts, it also eliminates the flexibility to work part-time. As it would force many businesses to pay for full-time benefits for what were previously independent contractors, part-time or conveniently-scheduled work disappears — taking flexible options for working parents with it.
Americans want to return to work. We want to provide for our families. We want our small businesses to reopen. As we claw our way out of an economic hole, President Biden should work to make it easier, not harder, for Americans to get back to work. Of course, if we let Congress and our own president ignore these realities, someone will have to clean up after the PRO Act's mess. But ironically, by removing independent contractors from the workforce, the PRO Act might make it impossible to find anyone to do just that.