How the PRO Act Threatens High-Skill Careers
Lawmakers say the bill is about "gig workers," but in reality, it targets interpreters, translators, financial advisers, bookkeepers and more
Aimee Benavides has spent the past two decades using her English- and Spanish-language skills to help those in need. She earns a living as an interpreter in courthouses, assisting witnesses and defendants who don't understand what's happening — and she specializes in the agribusiness sector, where farmers and advisers must share very technical information.
"I like it because it's very scientific," says Benavides, who built her career as an independent contractor. "And the information being shared helps to feed people. Even if I'm not getting my hands dirty, I'm helping to convey information that makes farming more efficient and cleaner for the environment."
Her entire career, along with millions of other skilled independent contractor careers, is now threatened by legislation before Congress called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act. Part of the bill known as the ABC Test would reclassify anyone like her — which is to say, anyone who works in the same line of business as the client hiring them — from an independent contractor to an employee under labor law.
Lawmakers routinely say the PRO Act is about "gig workers" (by which they mean, Uber and Lyft drivers) who they believe are misclassified as contractors when they really should be employees who receive benefits and wage guarantees. But given that about a third of the U.S. workforce does independent contractor work, and that skilled contractors are one of the fastest-growing segments of that work, millions of highly skilled, high-paying careers would be impacted by the PRO Act as well.
The version of the ABC Test in the PRO Act is taken from a law called Assembly Bill 5 that went into effect in Benavides' home state of California in early 2020, with lawmakers there also promising it would improve the lives of "gig workers." Instead, the ABC Test law left even longtime clients afraid to work with highly skilled contractors like Benavides, lest the clients be newly subject to misclassification fines and penalties.
Interpreters and translators were just two professions that reeled with lost income all across California. Ultimately, the state's lawmakers went back and exempted more than 100 professions—everything from physicians and professional foresters to landscape architects and musical engineers—after people like Benavides spent hours upon hours teaching the lawmakers that highly educated and specialized professionals are not the same as app-based drivers.
"Interpreters are at medical conferences, when they're talking about artificial hearts and valves for surgeons, and explaining how to operate," she says. "One of the really important things we do is interpret for public hearings, when people want to have a say about what's happening in their neighborhood. Maybe it's a new rail yard or an expansion of a landfill—people who live in more industrialized areas tend to be lower-income and immigrant communities, so interpreters are key in allowing those people to have a voice."
Katelynn Martin, who provides administrative and bookkeeping services, watched with dread from her New Jersey home as the California ABC Test law wreaked havoc. Bookkeepers she knew on the West Coast lost clients or had to completely restructure their businesses; one left California altogether, just to keep earning a living. When New Jersey lawmakers introduced a copycat bill in her own state, trying to follow California's lead just before the pandemic, Martin was astonished.
"You'd think the disaster was large enough in California that a big red flag would go up," Martin says. "Everybody puts a lot of attention on the Uber drivers, but whole industries are being affected and nobody is talking about that."
New Jersey's ABC Test bill failed to advance in the face of widespread opposition, giving Martin a huge sense of relief—but then federal lawmakers advanced the PRO Act with the same ABC Test in it, saying California had "paved the way" for the whole nation.
Martin felt exasperated all over again. She says she likes being her own boss as an independent contractor, with clients that include franchises, acupuncturists, massage therapists and others who don't require a full-time bookkeeper. She wants no part of being reclassified as an employee in any law, for any reason.
"I'm very happy not being an employee," Martin says. "An accountant offered to hire me as an employee, and I was like, why? You're not training me, you're not providing me with anything, and I'm not in your office. I said no. I'm perfectly happy like this."
Mary Beth Hofmeister feels the same way. She has been an independent financial adviser for two decades, helping people to plan for retirement and more, after 13 years of various staff jobs.
"I think of us as a profession, like lawyers and accountants," says Hofmeister, who lives near Albany, New York, and has hundreds of clients. "There's a lot of education. I'm a certified financial planner. There's ethics and regulations."
The PRO Act's ABC Test threatens careers like hers, too. The Financial Services Institute says it "would undermine thousands of thriving advisory practices across the country and place severe limitations on Main Street investors' access to high-quality financial advice."
"There would be incredible dislocation. I can't even imagine it, it would be so huge," Hofmeister says. "I've worked for small companies, and I've worked for large companies, and I never want to go back to that. I am an entrepreneur. I feel a calling to do what I do. I love it."
Benavides, too, says she loves what she does, and hopes lawmakers will abandon ABC Test laws like the PRO Act. The failed California experiment showed that this ABC Test restricts all kinds of highly skilled services that many people—including lawmakers—don't even realize independent contractors are providing.
"If you think about energy grids that go across borders, that also needs interpreting. People who are engineers and running a grid in Mexico or Canada, and the grid crosses the United States, interpreters have to be very specialized," she says. "Not just anyone can show up at a meeting and know all the terminology for the energy sectors. It takes a special skill set."
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