Higher Standards for the Gig Economy: A Call for Input on AB 626 Labor Protections

Let’s make sure home cooking creates good “independent work”

Legalizing home cooking represents an opportunity to take back power from corporations and increase cook and community control of our food system. The C.O.O.K. Alliance is always looking for thought partners to help us ensure that the Homemade Food Operations Act creates meaningful, dignified work for the cooks it’s meant to serve.

Home cooking isn’t new. Neither is selling home cooked food to test a new business or support one’s family (though it’s mostly illegal).

But with AB 626, legal sales of home cooked meals may become the newest frontier of the emerging “independent worker” economy in California and help set a precedent for how labor continues to change across the country.

Historically, much of the appeal of working independently in food has been driven by the ugliness of the alternative— the food industry is dominated by physically demanding, high-turnover jobs with poor wages and working conditions. In the face of exploitative industry options, many talented cooks try to make it on their own as private chefs, caterers, and popup hosts. But the high costs of commercial space and other barriers to entry keep many in legal grey areas or away from creative, ownership opportunities entirely.

Home food entrepreneur Renee with her “customers” (friends and neighbors)
By allowing independent home cooks to own and operate * their own * small food business, AB 626 could radically shift the dynamic for workers in the food industry.

Unfortunately, some of the latest proponents of “independent work” in other industries have been businesses intent on profiting from worker insecurities. Specifically, new “gig” platforms like Uber and Task Rabbit are competing on price and customer experience at the expense of traditional worker rights and protections. App-based “independent work” is replicating the same problems of unpredictable pay, volatile schedules, and poor conditions for workers.

The “new gig economy” is missing the mark for service workers so far, so it’s critical that we do better with AB 626.

Luckily, AB 626 is focused on true independent work— giving cooks complete creative license and ownership over how they start a small home food business. The goal is to unlock as many low-barrier, legal options as possible for home cooks to make and sell food.

So we want AB 626 to give control to cooks, not corporations, and place limitations on any 3rd party platforms that might become involved.

How can we protect home cooks? We want input!

Are you a cook? Labor advocate? Conscious consumer? We want your input on how to ensure that legalizing home cooking is a win for food workers.

C.O.O.K. Alliance Board member Brandi Mack speaking at an AB 626 rally in Sacramento

Our Guiding Questions:

  • What are the greatest risks for “gig economy” workers? Which of these can we realistically address in a food-regulation-focused bill? What is the parallel role of cook training and education once the legislation passes?
  • How can we encourage positive behavior from web platforms without overly restricting the tools chosen by individual cooks ?
  • How can we limit the control that companies have over cooks? Should we add additional language defining responsibilities of any companies that want to work with home cooks (such as educating or offering insurance)?
  • What are we missing in our thinking? Who should we be talking to about these issues before finalizing AB 626?
We know we can’t fix capitalism with a food bill, but we truly believe that AB 626 can (and should) represent an important step forward for cooks and communities.

Here’s how the bill protects cooks so far:

Our current bill language is written to empower and protect home cooks, while giving them the autonomy to run their own businesses.

Permit Process is Simple and Low Cost for Independent Cooks:

  • A county/city must designate one lead agency to issue all permits required for a home kitchen operation. No other agency may assess fees
  • Home kitchens are exempt from many prohibitively costly commercial kitchen requirements. Total inspection, permitting, and startup costs are estimated at $500 — $1500, including liability insurance

Home Cooks must be “the Face” of their own Business:

  • Cooks must serve food directly to customers — not via a retailer or wholesaler that might otherwise use home cooks as low cost labor
  • The operations must remain small scale and cook-operated — cooks are limited to $50k in yearly sales and a max of one additional employee

3rd Party Platforms* (Optional for Cooks to use for Sales/Marketing) Must Abide by Rules and Restrictions:

  • 3rd party delivery services are prohibited — any offsite delivery must be done by the home cook or their employee
  • In addition to cooperating with regulatory authorities to pass on food-borne illness or food safety concerns, 3rd party platforms must have a transparent fee structure and publicly post all platform fees in a manner both cook and consumer can understand
  • 3rd party platforms must communicate any major changes (2% or more) to transaction/usage fees with a minimum of one month written notice to prevent fees from changing too rapidly and help create more stability for cooks who depend on their cooking income

While a few individuals have called for an outright ban on 3rd party platform businesses being used to sell food (out of concern for the possible “uberization of food”), we simply know too many cooks who want to use web platforms and don’t think it’s the role of this bill to mandate they change their behavior. For example, many cooks have told us that they plan to (or already) sell holiday baskets on Etsy, promote farm-stay dinners on Airbnb, or offer tamales on Facebook Marketplace. And 3rd party delivery platforms like UberEats and Postmates are already prohibited by the bill’s “direct sales” requirement. While we will personally advocate for social enterprise, nonprofit, and government-funded alternatives to today’s dominant web platforms, we also need to be realistic about what’s happening in the world. Just look at how many home cooks sell food on Facebook and Instagram!

We are incredibly grateful for the feedback we’ve already received from hundreds of food advocates, dozens of home cooks, and amazing thought partners like Slow Food, the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, and Roots of Change. But this is a critical juncture for our food system so the C.O.O.K. Alliance Board and Advisory team wants to hear from you! Please send us your thoughts at advocacy@cookalliance.org.

We are sponsoring AB 626 because we believe that home cooking builds healthy, resilient communities and creates economic opportunity for the people that need it most. If you haven’t already, read the full AB 626 bill language here as well as our in-depth primer here.

[Disclosure: Before working as Coordinator of the C.O.O.K. Alliance, I cofounded home cooking social enterprise called Josephine, which is now shut down. Josephine provided food safety training, business education, liability insurance, and a web platform to home cooks— primarily underrepresented cooks who were already working in the existing informal food economy. After three years of negotiating unsuccessfully with regulators on behalf of our cooks, we shut down Josephine to focus on this new legislation. I now work full-time for the C.O.O.K. Alliance and moonlight with the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance.]

Thank you from all of us at the C.O.O.K. Alliance! (photo from our June 10th rally in Oakland)