Alternative access to on-demand employment

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Digital workplace offers flexible jobs, but presents safety concerns

The second time Akram Al-Saber ever drove with Uber, his passenger broke into uncontrollable sobs. Al-Saber, trying to play the role of a friendly driver, asked the young, clearly intoxicated rider how her night was going and she immediately started crying, venting to him about trouble with a guy she liked. A few weeks later, after becoming more accustomed to the ride-sharing environment, Al-Saber decided he was ready to capitalize on high-demand nighttime rides in San Francisco. He picked up a few girls who were headed to the bars, and midway through the trip they asked him to pull over. Before he could process what was happening, one of the passengers was relieving herself in the middle of the street, only to get back into the car seconds later.

These were not the situations Al-Saber, a fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major at UC Davis, expected to encounter when he first signed up to be an Uber driver early last summer. In fact, he never imagined that he would become a driver at all.

“At first, I was totally against the idea of doing it,” Al-Sabar said. “I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be an Uber driver, I take Ubers.’ But in reality, for a student who’s busy, who doesn’t want a set schedule and kind of wants to work on their own time, it is a very efficient and lucrative way of making some extra money.”

Now a household name in modern transportation, Uber is just one of many mobile platforms contributing to the growing “gig” or “sharing” economy. Though it goes by a number of names and definitions, the gig economy essentially encompasses any repeatable single-task job obtained on a digital platform. Other well-known companies in the market include Lyft, TaskRabbit, JoyRun, Care.com, Rover and Airbnb.

Neighborhood flyers and classified newspaper ads for piecemeal work by mechanics, nannies, lawn-mowers, tutors, car washers, dog-walkers, etc. have been around for centuries. When the internet started to expand in the 1990s, platforms like Craigslist provided a more efficient way of connecting part-time workers to available jobs. Wage opportunities have continued to advance in the modern gig economy thanks to mobile apps that help part-time workers network more easily than ever.

New technology, combined with the post-recession need for alternative money-making, shapes the image of today’s American worker. A Pew Research center survey from 2016 showed that 8 percent of Americans — nearly 26 million people — earned money from jobs found on digital platforms last year. The increasing popularity of jobs within the gig economy comes from flexibility — workers can choose where, when and how long they want their jobs to be.

“Society is prioritizing leisure in a way that it did not in previous generations,” said Janine Wilson, a professor of economics at UC Davis. “It was often thought that there was one breadwinner and one household market producer, and because of that division of labor, there was little need for flexibility in the workplace. And then, as women joined the workforce, [they] actually freed up men in the workforce to become more flexible as well. […] Both household heads can be providing some time to the labor market and some time to the household. That evolution started well before the gig economy took off. […] With technology, now it’s possible to communicate very easily with customers without having a very intense dynamic of marketing or of flyers or of expensive information.”

Obtaining work over the internet or on a mobile app also introduces a new form of social interaction that strays from American cultural norms. Children are taught about “stranger danger” from the time they start preschool: never allow strangers into your home, never get in the car with a stranger and never, ever, take candy or food from a stranger. TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft and Joyrun break these rules.

Many stories document app users being harassed by gig workers, but there are victims on both sides. Taco Bell executive Benjamin Golden infamously attacked his Uber driver in 2015, and a Miami doctor was fired in 2016 after drunkenly beating her Uber driver. Searching “Uber driver attacked” on YouTube returns over 113,000 hits.

Gig workers are considered independent contractors, so tech companies don’t regulate safety training typically required for taxi services and hotels. Uber, Lyft and Airbnb claim that app profiles are meant to protect users through peer rating systems, but one sub-five-star rating is usually not enough to have an impact on someone’s overall reputation.

Wilson said that the benefit of flexible work comes with the cost of losing the safety net generally associated with formally employed people. Things like disability pay, collective bargaining and basic health insurance coverage are sacrificed when people choose gig economy work. Wilson explained that these benefits are not available for gig workers now but may be available in the future.

“[…] The more people that participate in the gig economy, the more private insurers will see these folks as an opportunity,” Wilson said. “[Workers] will just have to pay outright instead of having it embodied in their wage.”

For app users and workers alike, the convenience and profitability benefits of the gig economy seem to outweigh the skepticism of confronting strangers. Like Al-Saber, many gig workers have learned to prepare for the unpredictable behavior — both positive and negative — of their clients in order to make the best of jobs that provide the flexibility needed to fit their lifestyles.

John Kintner, a UC Davis alumnus, started driving with Lyft as a way to earn extra money outside of his job as a medical scribe. In the middle of applying to medical school, Kintner found himself in need of additional income to pay his rent in San Francisco. He frequently uses Uber and Lyft as a passenger and realized he could benefit from being a driver as well.

Despite his success as a part-time driver, Kintner said that making a living wage as a Lyft driver has costs not everyone accounts for.

“If you plan out your day accordingly and have really good discipline and you drive when you get the most rides, it seems like you’d be able to pay rent and if you had a small family you’d be able to support them,” Kintner said. “But it seems that there are the hidden costs of gas and the depreciation of your vehicle — I did the math. When it comes out with all the math done its almost just like a minimum wage job. I think there would be better opportunities for employment elsewhere.”

Kintner also pointed out that competition is growing in the ridesharing industry.

“When there are a lot of drivers on the road, the rides get picked up quicker,” Kintner said. “The number of drivers is sort of saturating the market. The opportunity to make money is sort of reduced by the popularity of these apps.”

From a safety standpoint, Kintner doesn’t feel personally threatened by his riders, but he explained that he has been in situations that would make many people uncomfortable.

“On more than one occasion I’ve had some girls who’ve been drinking too much, and they’re very flirtatious because of the alcohol,” Kintner said. “They put their hands on me and try to get my phone number and take pictures with me. And that can be fun but also, especially if you’re a female driver, I’d hope that wouldn’t be happening to them. It can be an uncomfortable situation because the boundary is not really set.”

As of 2015, women made up only 14 percent of the Uber workforce. Men with ridesharing experience often say that they wouldn’t want their female family members working for on-demand driving services. Like Kintner, Al-Saber said that driving for Uber or Lyft can pose personal safety threats for women in particular.

“I don’t mean to be sexist in any way, but I think it’s different between guys and girls,” Al-Saber said. “My older sister was like, ‘If you’re doing it I think I might do it on the side.’ I said, ‘Honestly I would not be comfortable if you did just because, you know, I’ve seen the kind of people that I’ve picked up myself. I’ve picked up three to four drunk guys at once. Who’s to know what they’re going to do if I was a female driver.’”

Uber launched an initiative with UN Women in 2015 to create 1 million new jobs for women by 2020. Just eight days after the announcement of the partnership, a collection of 22 union groups released a statement against it, arguing that “the creation of one million precarious, informal jobs will not contribute to women’s economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labor market that the women’s movement has been fighting for decades.” Furthermore, the statement said that “Uber drivers are amateur drivers using their private vehicles who are unprotected in an industry where a worker is 20 times more likely to be killed at work than other jobs, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

“There’s always a trade-off,” Wilson said. “Balancing the trade-off between flexibility and a safety net — we are actively dancing that line on a regular basis as a society. We all have this spectrum of what expectations we have of the federal government and what we’re willing to give up in terms of efficiency in the market in order to get those fundamental things we find value in.”

The major downside to driving for ridesharing services? The apps hide riders’ destinations until drivers pick them up as passengers.

“Not knowing the destination of the person you’re dropping off, that kind of sucks in a way just because you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” Al-Saber said. “Your day could end up being really long when you only wanted to work two hours.”

Justin Behning, a fifth-year wildlife, fish and conservation biology major who drives for Lyft in Davis, shared the same sentiment.

“[The challenge is] the unknown of who you’re picking up and where you’re taking them,” Behning said. “The craziest drive I’ve had was driving some grad student to San Francisco. It was an $140 ride. He literally fell asleep in the back seat so I played my music and just hung out and drove like nobody was in the backseat. The drawback was that I was stuck in the city at that point and if I accept rides then I’m just kind of stuck to giving rides in that area.”

Despite the downsides to gig economy jobs — safety concerns, client and destination ambiguity, disingenuous pay structures and a lack of employer-paid benefits — Americans still choose to work for on-demand services to make ends meet. For 26 million people in the U.S., the appeal of schedule flexibility outweighs any major costs.

As the industry grows, gig workers will have to decide if they desire government involvement for benefit provision. For now, when choosing whether to enter the market, drivers should proceed with caution.

 

Written by: Olivia Rockeman — features@theaggie.org