The ups and downs of working in a gig economy
Many customers have no idea what gig economy workers go through just to make ends meet and to get you from one place to another or your groceries up five flights of stairs.
That was the message at a recent forum in Seattle hosted by the advocacy group Working Washington. The forum gave gig workers in the Seattle metro area a chance to talk about working for such app-based entities as Lyft, Uber, Shipt, Amazon Flex, DoorDash and Instacart.
(A link to the full presentation of the forum is at https://bit.ly/2uMFAjn.)
In the gig economy, companies use independent contractors and freelancers — sometimes described as shoppers — in temporary, flexible jobs to perform many app-based services, such as delivering groceries and ride sharing.
Offering the promise of setting your own hours and being your own boss, it also can run your body and your car into the ground, with paydays that can be disappointing.
The workers who spoke at the forum were only identified with just their first names and spoke in general of workers’ fear of retribution by the employers, particularly among those without a fallback plan.
One of the panelists, Mia, called it the “fear of being deactivated.”
Still, she said, “We’re not going to have a voice unless we speak up a little bit more.”
It’s important to pay attention to gig economy workers, even if they might make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, said Karla Walter, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., who spoke at the session via remote. The center is a nonpartisan education and advocacy organization.
“Increasingly these workers are shouldering uncertainty and risk,” she said.
“Large companies are driving down their costs by shedding their role as an employer and instead relying on staffing agencies, franchises and independent contractors, which is the role that most of these gig workers occupy — to supply their workforce.”
Some of the more dramatic stories came when panelists talked about how physically demanding their jobs were.
“I see this job as a workout every day,” said Mia, whose gigs included delivering 25 boxes of office paper. “I don’t have to go to the gym with the amount I’m lifting.”
She also pointed out that all she had to deliver orders was her car, and that it wasn’t unusual to make “four to five trips to and from Costco” to fill one person’s order.
“I am not a restaurant supply store,” she said. “I don’t have a flatbed truck, or a van.”
Corwin, another panelist, described delivery jobs that also turned out to be more than he anticipated. For example, he said, with Instacart: “Batches are automated. There is no way to tell what’s in the order before you accept it.
“There’s no way to tell, for example, that one order” — 10 cases of water to be delivered to the third floor of a building with no elevator — “was going to be so harsh until I accepted the batch and looked at the list.”
Another time, he said, he had to deliver four, 50-pound bags of dog food — again to a third floor with no elevator.
“I almost had a heart attack,” he said.
And, after all that, the labor wouldn’t necessarily satisfy a customer, Corwin said.
“One of my first batches with Shipt … wasn’t all that harsh,” he said, “but there was no parking near the building, and somehow there were five flights of stairs between the first floor and third floor.”
“I managed to get everything up to the top of the stairs, put it in front of her door, knocked on it, walked over and sat down on the top step, because I had to. If I didn’t sit, I was going to fall.”
He didn’t know the customer star rating he’d received, but “I got reprimanded and it said this person a bad experience from this delivery.” Recalling the incident, he added, as if speaking to the customer, “I’m really sorry you had a bad experience watching someone not have a heart attack.”
In response to questions about conditions for its gig workers, Instacart, which delivers for many local grocers in the area including Fred Meyer, Costco and Whole Foods, sent a fact sheet to The News Tribune.
According to the fact sheet, “Instacart Shoppers have the freedom to accept or reject orders at their own discretion. Shoppers are never forced to take a large order and are never penalized for rejecting an order they are not comfortable with.”
On its website, in the full-service shopper description, the company says it requires workers making deliveries to “be able to lift between 30 to 40 pounds with or without an accommodation.”
Its employee contract posted online also notes that if “you do accept a Delivery Opportunity, then you are contractually obligated to complete it.” The fact sheet sent to The News Tribune adds the caveat: “If a Shopper accepts then later decides they can’t do it, they can contact Shopper support team for help.”
The fact sheet mentions bonuses for large orders or long-distance deliveries.
In a email response to The News Tribune, Shipt, which recently began local deliveries for area Target stores, said: “The well-being of our shoppers is of the utmost priority to us at Shipt. We offer 24/7 support through our Experience Team to provide help and solutions to shoppers whenever needed. We take the feedback from our shoppers very seriously and are always improving our platform to best fit the needs of the Shipt community.”
On its website, Shipt says it requires workers making deliveries to have the ability to lift 25 pounds.
Other panelists at the forum described barely surviving financially despite working full time doing grueling jobs for little pay and low to no compensation for mileage and other work expenses.
They talked about of living in cars, vans or shelters while trying to save enough money for a room to rent, or grappling with medical expenses that, in some cases, were tied to job-related accidents, injuries or overexertion.
“I was spending 60 hours a week to make ends meet,” said Chris, another panelist.
Gig jobs, often promoted as “side hustles” by app-based employers, increasingly are not, the panelists said.
For example, a recent report for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission noted that 60 percent of ride-sharing drivers do the work full time and provide the bulk of that type of service in the city.
On the plus side, the flexibility the jobs provided was great to have with on-demand work, the panelists agreed. But sometimes, they added, that didn’t align with the work that was available.
“These companies are asking us to be reliable,” Mia said. “We take the shifts, then there’s no work on that shift. … For four hours you are waiting and there’s no work and you don’t get an hourly guarantee.”
Walter agreed workers face hard times in making a living.
“Gig workers receive fewer workplace protections and benefits,” she said. “… There’s increasing evidence that gig workers are not receiving the pay they need to compensate for these costs; and workers say they shouldn’t have to choose between a flexible job and the economic stability they want and need both to support themselves and their families.”
While the stories the panelists shared were Seattle-centric, they’re familiar to many gig workers.
“We have definitely heard from gig workers in Tacoma & Pierce County (and South King County too),” Sage Wilson of Working Washington said via email in response to questions from The News Tribune.
“This kind of work in particular doesn’t obey city and county lines,” Wilson said. “People go where the work takes them, and live where they can afford.”
“What I’ve heard workers talking about ... is to reach out to more workers and customer to expand the base of support” for better treatment, Wilson said. “In terms of organizing to get changes from the apps, there’s a lot of interest in organizing around pay transparency in particular — the whole idea of workers rating the apps instead of just the other way around.”
Working Washington also is interested in legislation giving gig workers portable benefits and workplace protections outside traditional workplace-employer benefits packages. House Bill 2812, introduced last year in the state Legislature by Rep. Monica Stonier D-Vancouver, “is a good place to start,” Wilson said.
Stonier, in an article for Fortune magazine in October 2017, said, “Young adults explain that they love the ability to work part time while pursuing higher education, but fear they will never save enough for retirement or to buy a house. These entrepreneurial workers agree that portable benefits are desperately needed in the growing economy of flexible work environments.”
Walter agreed the political arena plays a crucial role in making changes benefiting freelance workers.
“The promise of gig work won’t be fulfilled unless policy makers and advocates pay attention to what sorts of jobs are being created and how these jobs support workers in the 21st century economy,” she said.
As for the workers at last week’s forum, they sounded optimistic about change.
Kimberly, another panelist, compared today’s gig economy to the Industrial Revolution and the era before the 40-hour workweek and worker safety standards.
“We have to remember that we are at the beginning of a whole new way of doing things,” she said. “Every time we switch paradigms there’s going to be exploitation.”
“It’s just a matter of catching it early, saying what our expectations are and getting policies and procedures in place now so that’s it better for everyone.”