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Caddies at a Crossroads: How a new law is shaking the foundations of California’s looper culture

March 5, 2020

As a longtime caddie in Northern California, Jeff Saunders has found much to love about a looper’s life.

He works flexible hours in a scenic setting and collects his earnings on the spot, in cash. Though it hasn’t made him rich, the money pays his mortgage and other monthly outlays, with enough left over for a modest nest egg and a warm-weather vacation at least once a year.

The job is still a job. There are aspects of it he could do without, like the prickly personalities that pop up now and then, and the spotty income during rainy spells. But given the perks, which include exercise and access to great courses, many of which he plays for free, there’s a reason Saunders, who is 63, has been at the gig for nearly three decades.

“I might be able to make as much waiting tables or tending bar, but I wouldn’t have the flexibility or nearly half the fun,” he says. “I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”

What unsettles Saunders is the chatter he’s been hearing in recent months on the course and in the caddie shack. The conversations focus on a new California state law and its potential impact on Saunders’ profession. Widely referred to as the “gig worker bill,” California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), which went into effect on Jan. 1, seeks to extend benefits and protections to independent contractors by requiring companies that hire them to reclassify them as employees.

AB5 is also troubling for golf clubs with traditional caddie programs.
AB5 is also troubling for golf clubs with traditional caddie programs.
Getty Images

The legislation wasn’t drafted with golf in mind. Its main targets were gig-economy giants such as Lyft, Uber and DoorDash. But like many of laws, AB5 has come with unintended consequences; golf is one of many industries caught in its crosshairs.

For caddies, the legislation stands to cut two ways.

While employee status would have obvious upsides, like health care coverage, retirement accounts and guaranteed salaries, loopers are wary of the prospect. They worry it will cramp their finances and freedoms, that they’ll be forced to punch a clock while getting paid a barebones hourly wage.

Many golf clubs with caddie programs are on edge, too. Hiring caddies as employees comes with extra costs. There are also liabilities, as the traditional ways that caddie programs run risk running clubs afoul of the new law.

How things will play out is difficult to say.

The legal issues are complex, and the questions rising from them are sensitive enough that few caddies or course operators are willing to discuss them openly. But most everyone agrees that plenty is on the line.

To hear some tell it, no less is at stake in California than the future of caddie culture itself.

“It’s all very confusing, and most of the guys I know are still trying to get a handle on it,” says Saunders, who asked that his real name and club affiliation not be used. “The one thing I know is, there are a lot of nervous caddies out there. We like the ways things are. We don’t want them to change.”

For as long as he’s been looping, Saunders has thought of himself as a freelance bagman, an independent hand for hire.

The club where he works sees him that way, too. But AB5 casts Saunders in a different light. Under the law, which tightens the definition of an independent contractor, all California workers are presumed to be employees unless their job description checks three boxes in what is known as an ABC test.

Held to the strictures of that test, Saunders’ claim to “independent contractor” status begins to fall apart.

For starters, though he doesn’t work a conventional 9-to-5, Saunders is required to show up at the course if he wants to get a loop; failure to do so demotes him on the caddie waiting list for work. In that respect, the club exerts control over Saunders’ duties, much like an employer. It also has a say in how much he gets paid, with a recommended base fee of $120 per bag.

Throw in the fact that Saunders doesn’t caddie at any other courses, and, legally, he starts to look a lot like a club employee — without the healthcare plan or 401K.

Traditional employees enjoy such benefits. But they also earn their salaries on the books. Not so for many loopers. Though Saunders says he declares all his income and pays his taxes in full, it’s no secret that many caddies don’t.

Not surprisingly, AB5 is problematic for those caddies. But Uncle Sam is not the only worry. On most loops, with tips included, Saunders pockets upward of $150 per player. And since he usually double-bags it, he often earns as much as $300 for roughly four hours of work. Caddying on an hourly salary likely would pay significantly less. It would be up to the golfers, at their discretion, to pitch in to make a looper like Saunders whole.

For golf clubs with traditional caddie programs, AB5 is every bit as troubling, if not more so. In addition to the extra administrative costs of bringing caddies aboard as employees, there is the added expense of providing health care, workers’ comp and other benefits and protections.

A number of these concerns have already drawn headline attention at Pebble Beach Resorts, which is home to one of the largest caddie programs in the United States, with more than 250 loopers working multiple courses. Pebble’s program is run by Caddie Services international, which is part of CaddieMaster, a Florida-based caddie management company.

CSI operates Pebble’s program on an independent contractor model, and AB5 throws that practice into legal jeopardy. In response, Pebble caddies, CSI and the resort itself have joined up in an effort to get the loopers exempted from the law.

Put it this way. If I had to go full-time, with all the B.S. that entails, I would probably just retire.

Representatives for all three of those parties declined to discuss that effort with GOLF.com. But according to a December article in the Monterey Herald, each caddie has been asked to donate $200 to cover the legal fees involved in fighting for the exemption. If those contributions reach $50,000, the Herald reported, “both Pebble Beach and CSI reps have pledged to match that amount.”

Dozens of other professions have already been exempted from AB5, including doctors, real estate agents and attorneys. The gig-economy giants Lyft, Uber and DoorDash—the very companies the law was originally aimed at— are behind a $90 million campaign to get app-based drivers exempted as well.

But a coalition of caddies has nowhere near that cash or lobbying clout, and one attorney familiar with the golf industry who has worked extensively on issues surrounding AB5 told GOLF.com that the loopers’ legal quest stands little to no chance of succeeding.

“Think about it from the state’s perspective,” the attorney said. “From where lawmakers sit, caddying is a service offered at high-end resorts and to wealthy golfers at private clubs. In the political climate of California, there’s not going to be a lot of sympathy for that cause.”

Since the publication of the Monterey Herald story, Pebble’s caddies have been advised by their attorneys not to discuss AB5-related matters with the media. Those attorneys did respond to a request for comment.

But one veteran Pebble looper told GOLF.com that becoming an employee was a non-starter for him.

“Put it this way,” the caddie said. “If I had to go full-time, with all the B.S. that entails, I would probably just retire.”

In California, as elsewhere, some loopers are just kids. AB5 has cast a shadow of uncertainty over their status, too. Some worry that the law will deter young people from pursuing caddying as a part-time or summer job, a pathway that has long served as an entry to the game, and more.

“Our kids are learning to caddie but they’re also getting mentored and gaining life skills for beyond the course,” says Adam Heieck, CEO of Youth on Course, which runs the largest junior caddie program in California, providing kids ages 6 through 18 with caddie training and other opportunities through golf, including college scholarships. “Is the state really going to require them to be employees?” Heieck said Youth on Course was assessing the legal landscape and trying to determine what action, if any, might be best to take, such as seeking an exemption from the law for junior caddies.

“In our view, (AB5) has complicated matters unnecessarily,” Heieck says. “We’re concerned about adverse effects.”

Some are worried the new law will turn away young people from pursuing caddying jobs in the summer.
Some are worried the new law will turn away young people from pursuing caddying jobs in the summer.
Getty Images

One of the looming questions surrounding AB5 is how the law will be enforced. In a state so large, with many higher-profile industries to watch over, it’s unclear whether tax collectors or employment enforcement agencies would have the time or inclination to crack down on golf. But there’s always that risk. For clubs whose caddie programs don’t comply with AB5, run-ins with the state aren’t the only hazard. There’s also the prospect of getting sued by disgruntled caddies, something that has already happened in other states with employment laws less stringent than AB5.

In 2016, for instance, caddies at Streamsong, a three-course resort in central Florida, filed a suit alleging that the property had deprived them of overtime pay and minimum wages. Though a federal judge dismissed that case, a similar suit, filed in 2017 by a group of loopers at Garden City Golf Club, in New York, wound up being settled out of court. A more recent case, still ongoing, finds another prominent New York club, National Golf Links of America, on the receiving end of litigation claiming that caddies are classified “as neither employees nor independent contractors,” and often wind up getting the short end of both sticks, as when they work overtime during tournament weeks without receiving overtime pay. The suit asserts that while caddies are allowed to choose the days they work, “caddies who do not make themselves available on a daily basis do not receive regular work assignments” from the caddie master, who is also named as a defendant. The suit cites the case of a caddie who, when not assisting members during a round, was required to perform a range of non-golf-related duties, such as cleaning toilets, vacuuming the locker room and sweeping the patio, without getting paid for any of that work.

The suit seeks damages as well as compensation for all “similarly situated employees” for all past overtime work.

It’s enough to make even the most well-heeled golf club skittish.

“All it takes is for the caddie master to tick off just one guy who understands what’s going on, and that guy files a lawsuit,” says Kurt Seifert, president of 4 C Caddies, a Virginia-based caddie management company. “Suddenly, you’ve got a messy legal and PR problem on your hands.”

Seifert believes that solutions to the problems raised by AB5 are well within reach. But, he says, both caddies and clubs in California will have to modify their ways.

“My worry is that the industry sticks its head in the sand, does nothing and caddies start going extinct,” Seifert says. “Maybe clubs get tired of worrying about getting sued, or you have a general manager who looks around and says, ‘I’ve got 10,000 caddie rounds a year I can flip into cart rounds and make some actual money.’ Before you know it, they’re building a bigger cart barn and caddies go by the wayside. That’s the risk if there isn’t change.”

A number of companies are keen to help with the transition. Dave Cavossa, founder of CaddieNow, a caddie management company that works with 17 clubs in California, says that under AB5, his outfit has eliminated its independent contractor model in the Golden State and now hires its caddies only as employees. The employee model costs more. But in return, Cavossa says, his clients are spared the administrative headaches of managing and paying caddies as employees. They’re also indemnified against legal threats.

Another company, ClubUp, offers a technology platform that allows golfers to hire caddies directly, without any involvement from the club. Under this system, loopers remain independent contractors, but ClubUp founder Matthew Rose says that such an arrangement can still work, even in an environment as tricky as California’s, so long as clubs are willing to give up control of their caddie programs.

“There are things that some clubs have always done with caddies that you can’t continue doing,” Rose says. “You don’t get to set the caddies’ rates. You let them work at other clubs. You don’t tell them they need to sweep the parking lot if they want to get a loop. Things like that are problematic.”

Adapting to AB5 will require change from caddies, too. For the Carl Spacklers of the world—the guys who show up at the course looking like they slept under the bushes, and brush their teeth in the water fountain on the way to the tee — the transition might be tough. They might have to don a uniform and stick to stricter schedules. They’ll definitely have to file tax returns.

But CaddieNow’s Cavossa says that the changes don’t have to be disruptive. Under an efficiently run employee-based caddie program, he says, the day-to-day logistics should play out pretty much as they always have. And a looper’s take-home pay, after taxes, should remain almost the same, though the clubs themselves will likely have some cost to bear, as will club members in the form of slightly higher bag fees. There will be paperwork to fill out, and schedules to follow. But there will also be healthcare, a retirement fund and a guaranteed salary; no more risk of waiting by the first tee without getting a loop, then driving home without earning a cent.

“The biggest challenge is simply getting clubs and caddies comfortable with change,” Cavossa says.

The golf industry is notoriously set in its ways. But the world around it continues to evolve, and golf often finds itself swept up in the flux. It’s happening now. Just as the standard profile of a Tour pro has shifted over time, so, too, has the archetypal figure of the looper.

“You hear guys saying, ‘Why can’t we just show up, shut up and keep up like we always have,’” Seifert, of 4 C Caddies, says. “But that caddie who used to show up six days a week, loyal as your golden retriever, that caddie doesn’t exist in gig economy filled with 25 year olds. That 25 year old caddie is probably Uber driving on Thursdays. You can’t just always stick with the status quo.”

At the moment, the hotbed of change is California, but the ripple effects seem destined to spread (it’s worth noting that PGA teaching professionals, who represent a larger slice of the golf industry than caddies, have also been affected by AB5, as many of them contract independently with the facilities where they teach; unlike caddies, though, they’ve already lobbied successfully for partial relief from the legislation). In recent years, more than a dozen states have adopted some form of the three-part ABC employment test, and several states, New Jersey included, are weighing legislation similar to AB5. The shift in California could be a bellwether for a change in caddie culture coast to coast.

What awaits for golf is an open question. In Northern California, Jeff Saunders says that his only plan is to keep on keeping on. “Like a lot of guys, I’m just going about my business, wondering and waiting,” he says.

The experience, he notes, is akin to caddying. After pacing off the yardage and picking out a club, all that he can do is step back and watch, hoping for the best possible outcome.

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