“If I’m willing to pay $100 for someone to bring me a glass of fresh milk from an Omaha dairy cow right now, there might very well be a guy who would be super happy to do that, but he doesn’t know that I’m the crazy guy who is willing to pay $100.” Bo Fishback was on stage at the “Big Omaha” startup conference in 2011, trying to explain how his company Zaarly was designed to make that connection between the person with more money than time and anyone who, finding themselves in the opposite situation, could fulfill his hankering for local farm products. “It creates instantly the ultimate opt-in employment market, where there is no excuse for people who say, ‘I don’t know how to get a job, I don’t know how to get started.'” Fishback wrapped up his presentation with a flourish: A man in a baseball cap arrived, cow in tow, with a tall plastic jug of milk.
Neither Fishback nor I realized at the time that he was the first person to pitch the vision I would hear many more times over the last three years: The gig economy (a phrase which encompasses both the related collaborative economy and sharing economy) represents a theory of the future of work that’s a viable alternative to laboring for corporate America. Instead of selling your soul to the Man, it goes, you are empowered to work for yourself on a project-by-project basis. One day it might be delivering milk, but the next it’s building Ikea furniture, driving someone to the airport, hosting a stranger from out of town in your spare bedroom, or teaching a class on a topic in which you’re an expert. The best part? The work will come to you, via apps on your smartphone, making the process of finding work as easy as checking your Twitter feed.
Whatever you do, it will be your choice. Because you are no longer just an employee with set hours and wages working to make someone else rich. In the future, you will be your very own mini-business.
The vision is so intoxicating that as the U.S. unemployment rate remained stubbornly high, with millions of long-term unemployed dropping off the rolls and untold millions more underemployed, the gig economy came to offer not just a path to freedom from our desks but also a way to get the American people back to work. In a TED talk, Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, described sharing economy companies as “lemonade stands on steroids.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a piece headlined “How To Monetize Your Closet” that argued “these entrepreneurs are not the only answer for our economic woes…but they are surely part of the answer.”
The people running these new companies have made grand pronouncements as well. When challenged by city hotel laws, Brian Chesky, CEO and cofounder of Airbnb, told the Wall Street Journal that “I want to live in a world where people can become entrepreneurs or micro-entrepreneurs and if we can lower the friction and inspire them to do that, especially in an economy like today, this is the promise of the sharing economy.” And in 2012 when PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund led a $13 million investment round in the errand platform called TaskRabbit, its CEO Leah Busque told TechCrunch that the company’s goal was to “revolutionize the world’s labor force.”
The only problem with this narrative is that the prospects of finding a living wage in America do not seem any brighter than they did back in 2008 when Busque founded TaskRabbit. Unemployment has drifted down from its high of 10% in October 2009 to 6.6% in the January 2014 report, but income inequality is, according to research based on tax-return data from the IRS, the worst it has been since 1923.
And the anecdotal evidence is appalling. Walmart, the single largest private employer in the country, was spotted at one location last holiday season hosting a Thanksgiving food drive for its own workers. McDonald’s, the second largest fast-food chain in the country, teamed up last summer with Visa to sketch out a budget for its low-paid full-time workers. The budget presumed they would each be working a second job. More than a decade after Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed to chronicle firsthand the struggles of low-wage workers, conditions only seem to have worsened.
Meanwhile, politicians have begun fighting over what they might do to help, namely, raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to as much as $10.10 an hour. President Obama and the Democratic lawmakers advocating the raise hope that it spurs private employers to follow suit. Gap, for one, announced that it would raise its lowest hourly wages to $10 an hour by next year.
In the tech world, fueled by the success and high valuations of Airbnb (room or home rentals), Uber (car service), Lyft (car service), DogVacay (pet sitting), Postmates (urban courier service), and the many other services that rely on a new cadre of employee to fulfill what they’re selling, hope remains high that these marketplaces can create the solution. “People who are renting their homes out in Airbnb or driving for Lyft, they may make more money than working a minimum-wage job,” says Jeremiah Owyang, a former social-media analyst who last December launched Crowd Companies, a firm devoted to helping name brands such as Ford and Home Depot connect with startups in the gig economy. These folks are doing so well, in fact, Owyang says, “For some brands, this is a threat to employment.”
The only way to find out whether the tech world’s solution for the poor job market and income inequality had the answer was to put it to the test. For four weeks this winter, spread out over a six-week period to avoid the holidays, I hustled for work in the gig economy. Technically I was undercover, but I used my real name and background, and whenever asked, I readily shared that I was a journalist. (Alas, people were all too willing to accept that a writer was a perfect candidate for alternative sources of income.) I have changed the names of anyone who did not know, when I was speaking to them, that I was working on this story.
I decided that I would accept any gigs I could get my hands on in pursuit of my goal: I would use the slick technology and shimmering promise of the Silicon Valley-created gig economy to beat Capitol Hill’s $10.10 per hour proposal. How hard could it be?
“Furloughed? Try Freelancing on Fiverr.” I read this prescriptive headline on Yahoo News during the government shutdown last year. On Fiverr ($31 million in funding), the startup’s founder explained, you can make money doing what you love in your spare time. I didn’t want to deprive a laid-off civil service employee of her right to do what she loved in her (involuntary) spare time, but I couldn’t resist trying. “I’m a professional writer, and I will proofread your paper, essay, or article (up to 1,500 words) for grammatical errors and typos,” I write in the description box. I select my price for this valuable service: $5. Submit.
While I wait for my proofreading gigs, I spend the next five minutes identifying 23 other gigs that I’d like to pursue.
Some of those are obviously out of the question from the start. Nobody searching Airbnb (more than $300 million in funding) will select a slowly deflating air mattress in my Brooklyn living room/kitchen/office/dining room/gym/guest room. I don’t have a car, thus disqualifying me from working for Lyft (more than $80 million in funding), Uber (more than $300 million in funding), and the peer-to-peer car sharing services Getaround and RelayRides ($19 million and $18 million in funding, respectively). I also quickly cross parking spot marketplace ParkatmyHouse (undisclosed seed funding) off my list. I don’t even know anybody in New York City who owns a parking spot, but I imagine it would be like owning a helicopter pad anywhere else in the country. I consider what I own to determine if there’s something that would be of value to share with others for money, but it seems I don’t own anything that seems like a viable rental candidate. Not even a snow blower or ping pong table. It also seems that the founders of platforms that allow rentals of such assets, like Snapgoods (undisclosed seed funding) and Rentstuff ($835,000 in funding), have since moved on to other ideas. Much to my chagrin, Tom Friedman, my closet stubbornly refused to be monetized.
Within minutes, I am into the second-tier opportunities on my list. The jobs here may be less cushy, but they still seem appealing. On TaskRabbit ($37.8 million in funding), I watch a video called “The Taskrabbit Life.” “I don’t have a boss,” a retiree in the commercial says. “I don’t have a set schedule. I can work for how much I want. If I don’t want to do a task, I don’t have to do it.”
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The Taskrabbit Life
And all this can be mine with just a quick background check and the completion of a quiz with true or false questions such as, “When you complete a task, just let the TaskPoster know and they’ll pay you in cash.” (Answer: “False! Accepting a cash payment will result in a strike on your account or removal from the TaskRabbit Community”). It is about easy as I expect it to be, and it’s likely why TaskRabbit was flooded with 13,000 applications in one day after the government shutdown. Already I can see myself grocery shopping for nice elderly ladies who refuse to let me leave without eating at least one cookie.
The application for the virtual personal-assistant service Zirtual ($2 million in funding) asks, “Have you always dreamed of being able to work from home? Have you wished for a part-time job that is actually meaningful and rewarding? Do you feel that work and play shouldn’t be mutually exclusive?” How did they know? I diligently fill out the application and attach my resume.
Most Skillshare ($9.7 million in funding) classes close to where I live focus on computer programming, cooking, or crafts like hand lettering. I’ve never attempted any of the above without YouTube nearby for crash tutorials. But thanks to my mother, I do have one teachable skill that most people don’t: My mom, a farmer’s daughter who works 60-hour weeks as a finance executive, can wrap packages that put any stay-at-home mom with a Martha Stewart obsession to shame. And I know all of the secrets that go into her big, glittery homemade bows. Truth be told, I am more of a klutz than she is, but I can always call her if I need help. I propose a two-hour “Snazz Up Your Holiday Gift Wrapping” workshop for $20 a person. I’ll provide supplies.
To round out my potential work portfolio, I create a homemade pizza menu for a site called Kitchensurfing ($3.7 million in funding) that connects chefs with people who want meals catered in their homes. I post a profile on DogVacay ($22 million in funding) that details my dog-sitting qualifications. For good measure, I shoot applications to the on-demand cleaning service Exec (more than $3 million in funding) and on-demand delivery services WunWun (undisclosed seed funding) and Postmates ($22 million in funding).
Then I sit back and wait for the jobs to start rolling in.
The rejection notices come almost instantly. Each one lands with a thud in my inbox that sounds like a wasted hour of my life. Neither Zirtual nor a similar company called FancyHands ($1 million in funding) is hiring independent contractor assistants. Q&A service ChaCha ($83.5 million in funding) has also stopped taking applications. Exec, the cleaning service, rejects me within a day, without explanation. Nobody has taken me up on my Fiverr proofreading gig yet, and when I search for it on the website, there are 4,786 results with similar titles, most of which seem to appear before mine.
DogVacay does not find my application satisfactory, though according to its email, it is still “barking with joy that you want to join our pawesome host community!” The startup wants more details about my love of dogs as well as more photos of the pawesome play space I’ll provide any pups. As I move all my junk to one side of my apartment so that I can take a photo of the deceptively organized other side, I’m grateful to have something to do.
All I’ve done so far is create profiles. To pass the time, I refresh the TaskRabbit dashboard. When tasks first came up for bid, I would think about how a job fits into my schedule or how it would feel to spend an entire day boxing coffee beans. Then, just like the ad said, I’d decide if I wanted to do the job and how much I wanted to get paid. When I bid on jobs, I’d carefully calculate a fair fee before putting in each offer. Test a website for two hours? Twenty dollars. Write a social entrepreneurship proposal? Forty. Three hours of photographing and posting items for sale on eBay? Forty-five bucks. Five hours of helping out at an event? Sixty. Pick up someone’s mail and forward it to California? I’d do it for $12. Two-to-four hours of my specialty, gift-wrapping? How about $40?
I win exactly zero of these gigs.
The Gig: Acquired by Handybook in January, Exec started as a “TaskRabbit meets Uber” errands service, but pivoted to focus on house cleaning.
The Gig: Field user questions like “What countries participate in Kyoto protocol?”
The Gig: Make deliveries in less than an hour.
The Gig: Use an iPhone app to locate and pickup passengers in your limo, taxi or regular car.
The Gig: Become a virtual assistant to however many people you want to manage at one time.
The Gig: Offer pet-sitting services in your home.
The Gig: Turn your car into a cab.
The Gig: Complete personal assistant tasks.
The Gig: Chefs sign up to cater meals for private parties.
The Gig: Rent out your parking space.
The Gig: Rent an extra room or your entire home.
The Gig: Bid on odd job tasks like assembling Ikea furniture.
The Gig: Advertise a one-off service, usually for $5.
The Gig: Apply to teach a class about anything.
The Gig: Complete on-demand deliveries.
Time for plan B, which involves a lot less rational analysis of my value as an employee: I begin bidding furiously on anything that I think I could reasonably accomplish.
Unfortunately, there are far fewer jobs that fall into that category than I’d hoped. I cannot fix your lawn mower. I lack the body mass to move your furniture or deliver a Christmas tree. “Priority will be given to those who have experience as a sommelier.” Nope. “Nice handwriting, calligraphy preferred.” There’s a font for that, right?
I experience that sobering moment when one considers all those hours in the college library learning about Russian literature and the architect of the Chicago World’s Fair and realizes they could have been better put to use learning to sew–or at least assembling Swedish furniture. Even my offer to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Friday morning and wait in the November cold for at least two hours for a cronut is denied.
Because of the way TaskRabbit works, job posters can easily find the people willing to work for the least amount of money. A user with the screen-name BaubleBar (the name of an online jewelry vendor that has raised $6 million to date) creates a task for $40. “We need 10 TaskRabbits to help us pack and check the quality of merchandise, and add labels to merchandise tags,” it says. “PLEASE NOTE: We cannot allow frequent cell phone use during this task, so if you need to be on your phone often, this is not the task for you. This job will take approximately 8 hours. From 8am to 4pm.” That’s eight hours of work for $40, $5 an hour, which is $3 an hour less than New York State’s minimum wage. The task quickly disappears. Either the poster deleted it, or a fellow rabbit quickly accepted it.
All that seems to be left to apply for are tasks that require handyman skills, cars, or have foreboding titles such as INDUSTRIAL TOILET CLEANING. “Need someone to purchase the finest quality cucumber Whole Foods has to offer (just 1) and deliver it to my girlfriend at her office this afternoon,” reads a new offer. “This is not a dick joke.” I hesitate for a moment, and the task gets assigned to someone else before I can apply.
When Postmates invites me to its courier orientation, it seems like a big break. “Earn up to $30/hour, flexible hours!” the application splash page read.
When I arrive at the cramped office, a man is standing by the door asking the manager, “Can you guarantee a job?” The muscular young manager, wearing a blue polo shirt, explains that no, the company doesn’t guarantee anything. “There are too many people here,” the candidate announces. “Imma peace out.”
As he leaves, another recruit, this one with a slicked-back ponytail and a tattoo that creeps up his neck, locks the door behind him, effectively disqualifying anyone who’s tardy. “There are no guarantees in life,” he says, delivering the line like the wise old gangster in a mob movie.
He turns to Blue Polo. “The $20 to $30 an hour thing, is that for real?”
Blue Polo assures him it is.
As the presentation begins, Blue Polo tells the 24 of us here about a “big shot architect” named James who wants a meatball sandwich and a Postmates delivery man named Tom who will stop at nothing to get it to him. When James has a friend stop by unexpectedly, he lets Tom know to pick up an extra sub. Tom does–and gets a bigger tip for the trouble. Blue Polo explains how he makes the schedule each week based on availability couriers submit themselves, taking time, like everyone else in the gig economy, to reiterate the freedom we’d have in this job.
When Blue Polo talks about compensation, though, he doesn’t talk about the $20 to $30 an hour mentioned in the ad. He says that couriers make 75% of the delivery fee on all orders they accept.
Postmates delivery fees start at $5. So if you do the math, the courier keeps $3.75 on the minimum delivery. At that rate, we would need to make eight deliveries every hour in order to make that promised $30. Couriers I speak with later say that the average tip is around $5 (Postmates confirms this figure), which eases the burden to three to four deliveries an hour. In Manhattan or Brooklyn traffic. On a bike or in a car.
Blue Polo opens the floor for questions and I ask whether there are any health insurance or safety policies for couriers. He tells me in no uncertain terms, “You are not an employee of Postmates. So when it comes to safety, you are on your own.” (I am, after all, my own microbusiness.) When I later visit the web page that Postmates uses to recruit employees, I can’t help but notice that it boasts that Postmates pays 100% of its employees’ medical, dental, and vision insurance premiums. “Your physical and mental health is a priority to us,” it says. But that’s only for Postmates’ 45 engineers, designers, and executives. It does not include the 2,000 people who are making deliveries.
After orientation, I approach Blue Polo to confess that I don’t own a bike, just a helmet and a year-long subscription to New York City’s bike-sharing program. He laughs. “You need a vehicle,” he tells me.
As we’re leaving, Blue Polo hands out survey cards. There’s a red side for “not interested” and a green side for “interested.” It reminds me of a mandatory sexual harassment seminar I attended during my first week of college. As if the session had not made it clear enough, the green side requires you to check off that you “understand that Postmates is a marketplace and that I won’t be an employee.”
About 10 of us cram into an elevator to leave. As the doors close, one of the men who identified himself as a professional courier during the meeting asks the rest of us what we thought. His friend scrunches up his face like he ate something sour. “I saw the Craigslist ad for $20 an hour,” he says. “And I was like, I will ride the shit out of this for $20 an hour.”
The professional courier nods his head in agreement. “And now we’re down to a 75% commission,” he says.
Reflecting on the experience, the Postmates survey card in my pocket (I couldn’t choose a color), I realize that Blue Polo’s “on your own” answer applies to everything about the job. If you work for Postmates and you don’t beat your coworker to accept deliveries that might fill your shift, you–not Postmates–are out of luck. If you get a flat tire, you–not Postmates–are out of luck. And if there aren’t enough jobs to go around, you–not Postmates–are out of luck.
Instead of buying a bike or a car to be a Postmates courier, I direct all of my efforts toward TaskRabbit. When I see a post for someone who needs help cleaning her desk–indoors, doesn’t mention toilets–I pounce. And this time, I win.
The next morning, I am pleased with myself for arriving at my task on time, at 10:00 a.m. on the dot. “I’m here to see Teresa, in 1A, I tell the doorman.” He looks confused. “It’s a doctor’s office,” he says. “But maybe they have a Teresa over there.” He points me to the street entrance, where I find a receptionist. “Is there a Teresa here?” I ask hopefully.
“Oh,” he says. “What’s her last name?” This is not information a TaskRabbit would usually have. The app reveals only the last initial of your employer’s name. Being somewhat paranoid about the idea of spending time in someone’s apartment whom I had never met, however, I had done some basic Google stalking. I’ve also left an address with my husband. “Where the body is,” I told him that morning as I was writing it down on a post-it note.
“I think it’s something Italian,” I tell the receptionist.
“Oh!” He tells me he gets her mail all the time. But she lives at the same address–in Brooklyn. That’s when the suckiness of this job starts to sink in like the rain in my soggy boots. Though it’s not my fault that I’m at the wrong place, I won’t be reimbursed for showing up here. By 10:36, I’m back where I started the day at 9:22. By 10:57, I’m ringing Teresa’s bell. “Your name is Sarah, right?” she asks.
As Teresa makes me a cup of coffee, we exchange small talk, much of which is focused around the fact that she’s too busy to open her own mail. “Someone offered $80 for what you’re doing now,” she tells me. I have been assigned to do this task for $22. “I mean, you don’t even need a high school degree. You can’t get paid $20 an hour for everything you do.”
Teresa is a single mother who has had trouble collecting child support. Her son is a freshman art student in California. She sometimes forgets to pay her bills and has been applying for jobs even though she’s worked in freelance PR for years. I know all of this because I’ve opened at least a year of her mail. In the process, which I complete while she works nearby on her laptop, I see all of her account numbers, her lease agreement, and other personal information. If I wanted to steal her identity, it would be quite easy.
I get the feeling Teresa uses TaskRabbit a lot, but never very effectively. I can’t see how opening her mail is much help, aside from the fact that I’m a human in her home. Next to her desk, there’s a makeshift filing cabinet that another TaskRabbit created, but there are no files in it.
My predecessor, she says, “was pretty much my personal assistant.” That ended when he wanted to get paid through PayPal instead of TaskRabbit. Because Teresa is an independent contractor, TaskRabbit is a tax write-off for her. If she starts paying someone regularly through something like PayPal, she worries she would have to claim him as an employee. And pay additional taxes.
I finish the piles at 1:19, about two and a half hours after I arrived. I’ve made about $8.80 an hour since I arrived, and about $5.50 since I left my house this morning. There aren’t enough folders, so I just show her which piles are which. When she pays me three days later, she doesn’t leave a tip.
After two full days of bidding on tasks, I’ve made a whopping $52. I need help, and I know just where to find it: TaskRabbit. I post an $8 task, “Mentor Me In Being A Good TaskRabbit.”
My mentor, Dmitry Solominsky, is already waiting for me at the café when I arrive. He has a scruffy beard and thick black glasses, and he is wearing a sweatshirt that says ARMY. “Tools for pretty much any job I do are in here,” he says, pointing to the large camo backpack tugging on his shoulders. He doesn’t have a job planned, but he’s carrying it just in case.
Sample Job: A web designer will create a custom wedding website for, yes, $5.
How It Works: Anyone can post an offer to perform simple one-off services, usually for $5 (hence the company’s name). Fiverr keeps 20% of every transaction.
Sample Job: Deliver a Potbelly meatball sandwich to a nearby office building.
How It Works: This courier service guarantees one-hour delivery from partner stores like Whole Foods. Sign up as an independent contractor, accept jobs on your phone, and keep 75% of the delivery fee ($5 and up).
Sample Job: A chef offers a $15 class on authentic southern fried chicken.
How It Works: Anyone can apply to set up a class about whatever wisdom they think they have to impart–and charge whatever they think it’s worth (Skillshare kept 12% of offline course fees, it charges $9.95 for access to all online classes and doles out payment to teachers based on popularity).
Sample Job: Pick up a document from the county clerk’s office and deliver it for $16.
How It Works: Users can post any sort of temp employment on the site, either setting a fee or accepting bids from potential workers (known as TaskRabbits). The company handles all payments and takes a 20% cut.
Illustrations by Tim Boelaars
I have hired Solominsky because he is a TaskRabbit success story. All but three of his 312 ratings are a perfect five stars (those three are four-star reviews). According to comments on his profile, he’s punctual, good with kids, helpful, and professional when a task turns out to involve more than expected. He can install blinds perfectly. “Nine months ago, I had no contacts, nothing to fall back on, no reviews, nothing,” he says. “Now I have reviews and a litany of people willing to vouch for me.” This is why Solominsky is at the top of TaskRabbit’s leaderboard.
Every gig economy company has at least one glittering success story like Solominsky’s. Postmates promotes Chris Hicks. “I started out thinking I would do Postmates part-time, in between jobs, but I fell in love with Postmates,” reads a quote from him on its website. “I’m addicted to it.” Fiverr’s CEO, Micha Kaufman, is fond of telling the press that people have used his site to pay for college or pay for a home. TechCrunch wrote an article about a Lyft driver who had quit his job as a miner (yes, a miner in San Francisco–perhaps it was Bitcoin?) to give rides full-time. I am not immune to promoting a gig economy winner: Last fall, I came across a stockbroker who had set up a lucrative Airbnb business on the side, renting six different apartments in San Francisco to create a makeshift hotel that could net him almost $100,000 this year.
The reason these people make good headlines is precisely because they are outliers. For every Solominsky I meet, I can easily find dozens of people like Sharon in San Diego, who has a goal of making $300 a week on TaskRabbit to help pay her bills, but hasn’t hit it yet. Or Kristen in New York City, who bids on tasks when she’s working full-time as a receptionist. Or Stacie, who works full-time as a software engineer in Boston, but always keeps the TaskRabbit website open so she can complete tasks on her lunch hour, after work, on weekends, or without leaving her desk. Stacie made about $6,000 on TaskRabbit last year, earning her “elite TaskRabbit” status. She likes helping people out, but she would never work on TaskRabbit just for the money. “If I wasn’t working full time, I could do more tasks,” she tells me, “but even if I doubled that, that’s still poverty–$12,000 a year. And there are no benefits. You don’t know what you’re going to wake up to. You could wake up one day, and be like, oh my god, I made $300 today, and then have three days where you’re making $12.”
When Stacie heard about Lyft, she decided to try that, too. She passed the screening process, attached the requisite pink mustache to her car, and had a great time driving people around for a day. Then she read an article about the insurance risks of driving for a peer-to-peer ride platform like Lyft. She became afraid that if someone were to sue her for getting hurt in her car, her insurance would not cover it. “I have savings, I have kids, and I have a house. I can’t risk it,” she says. “If I were 25 and I had nothing, yeah, to make a buck, what are the chances.” (Lyft has recently made efforts to address such concerns by expanding the insurance it provides drivers, but there are still ambiguities about what happens if claims exceed Lyft’s $1 million protection.)
Leena Chitnis, a former Fulbright scholar, finished an MBA program at Syracuse University last year and, while she looks for work, set up eight gigs on Fiverr to keep her going. So far, she’s completed a total of 27 orders and made $176. “I have $90,000 in school loans,” she says, “so when people say, can you edit my business plan for five bucks, I’m like, people charge $10,000 to write your business plan, and here I am editing it for four bucks [Fiverr takes 20% of every $5 fee]. I’ve seen panhandlers get more money outside of the 7-11.”
When I order my next Postmates delivery, I talk with the courier who biked through an icy storm to bring me a bag of cashews from Whole Foods. He’s 22, which means he can still use his parents’ insurance. On this four-hour shift, one of his first since signing up for Postmates, he expects to make about $40. “I don’t rely on this for my main source of income,” he says. “I haven’t talked with anyone who does.”
Every once in a while on a crowded New York City sidewalk, a puff of sadness will float off a stranger and hit me like a cloud of too-strong cologne. Whether it’s coming from a deliveryman with ice caked to the back of his bike or from a man with an overly starched white collar, it only lasts as long as it takes us to pass each other.
Not so in the gig economy. When you meet your neighbors, you meet their hardships. Sometimes they’re upfront about it. “Going through a divorce,” reads one TaskRabbit task. “Need somebody to preview emails from a contentious ex, redact any contentious material and summarize the essential practical elements (like ‘pack the kids’ rain boots next week,’).” Other hardships, like Teresa’s loneliness, sneak up on you. But it’s Marge who makes me want my desk job back.
A fluffy poof of a dog greets me before I reach her apartment, where Marge is hanging out of the doorway. She takes my coat and puts it in the bathroom, where it won’t get cat hair on it. “Kayla?” she calls for her daughter, and then turns to me. “She’ll tell you what she needs to work on.”
Kayla is a skinny teenager who attends what she calls “a stupid small school that nobody has ever heard of.” She needs to finish her English and history homework, but she has already finished her math and science homework, “because that is easy.” (Thank God, I say to myself.)
It quickly becomes apparent that I am not really being paid $20 an hour to be a tutor. I’m more like an enforcer. On the first day, that means sitting in silence as Kayla types her English essay. She’s bright enough to be taking a sophomore class as a freshman, but she hasn’t read the book and requires constant oversight for even the most straightforward, simple tasks. Every time she finishes a sentence, she asks me what she should write for the next one. At one point the website on which her teacher leaves her homework assignments doesn’t load. She just informs me and stares blankly, expecting me to somehow fix it for her. But in Marge’s eyes, I am a success, and she asks me to come back one or two times every week.
By the next time I visit, Kayla has stopped attending school. Her mother sits at the kitchen table, where I can hear her on the phone scheduling tutors. After an hour or so, she walks to the stove, pours a pan of noodles into a baking bowl, sticks a fork in it, and hands it to Kayla. She opens cans of cat food and fills two dishes on the floor before returning to the table with her own dinner.
Though I know I should sit quietly beside Kayla as she looks up vocabulary words for her history class (“Is this ok?” she asks me after every one), I can’t take it anymore. I’ve made up stories for every object in the room. Mapped out the apartment in my head, and checked my phone more than 100 times. I grab another book she’s been assigned, Albert Camus’ The Stranger–a book about existential dread–and crack it open. Later, I refuse to help her fabricate an essay about it. “If I could do anything in the world right now,” I tell her. “I would go home and read a book. You should read it. It’s a good one.” If she were ever trying to impress me, we’ve long passed that moment. Her mom tries to back me up. “Kayla, you can either read the book, or I can find an audio version and you can listen to it,” she says. “Or Sarah can read it to you.”
I think about reading Camus out loud to a 13-year-old who thinks she’s too smart for her expensive private school and am not sure I can do it. If Kayla chooses that option, I may ruin the best-paying job I’ve found in the gig economy.
But Kayla is not really up for discussing it. Instead, she tells her mom that she walks like an ogre. Marge looks at me, embarrassed, and tries to laugh it off. I look at the floor. The sadness smells strong, and it smells like cat food.
The last time I visit Kayla, it’s 3:45 in the afternoon, and Marge isn’t home from work yet. Marge had sent me a text asking me to contact her if Kayla doesn’t answer the doorman’s call.
Kayla doesn’t answer the call.
Marge asks the doorman to give me the key. The doorman tries to reassure me by saying, “There’s nothing wrong,” before adding, “If there is something wrong, come back down here right away.”
I know that Kayla hasn’t been to school in at least a week and that she’s clearly unhappy. I don’t really know why. But I am terrified that when I unlock the door to her apartment it is going to be silent inside. That I’m going to open her bedroom door and see something that I can’t ever un-see. That I am going to be the person who calls 911, the person who rides in the ambulance, the person who calls her overly sweet mother to explain what has happened. And all I wanted was a $20-an-hour tutoring assignment.
“Kayla?” I call for her, as I push open the door. Nothing. “Kayla?” I call her name in a cooing voice, the way one might call for a cat.
Much to my relief, she appears, groggy, wearing a purple T-shirt.
“I just woke up,” she says.
When I come across the task, “Proposal Flash Mob in Central Park,” I know immediately that I am exactly the wrong person for the job. The training video opens in a mirrored dance studio, with a man in a tight-fitting black t-shirt. “Please make sure you are familiar with this choreography before you commit to that rehearsal so we don’t have to waste any time,” he explains in a high-pitched voice before counting out about three minutes of what looks to me like complex choreography. During slow claps at baseball games, I’m the fan who claps on the wrong beat. A real rabbit might have a better chance of learning this dance.
But the job pays $20, and because it involves a two-hour rehearsal beginning at 8 a.m., it could help me finally achieve an elusive goal I had been working toward for weeks: a full day of micro-entrepreneurship employment. I had already lined up a personal assistant gig for mid-afternoon, and I had bids out on a handful of odd jobs in the evening. Experience has taught me not to count on any of these, but still, here was the morning timeslot that could lead me to an eight-hour workday. I accept the offer.
And then I immediately panic.
“After attempting the choreography,” I write to the event company that posted the task, “I realized that I am not the best person for the job. Please accept my apologies and my ‘cancel task’ request.” I receive a response a few hours later. “Enthusiasm is what’s most important,” it says. I throw gym clothes in my backpack.
Only in New York can you easily find 20 talented professional dancers with the free time to fill out a flash mob at 8 a.m. on a Friday. It’s amazing to live in such a city. But in this case, it’s my curse.
Everybody else seems to know the choreography when we start. “I made this dance super simple so that you can really perform it,” our choreographer, the same man from the video, tells us. The dancers add artistic flashes of their hands and pointed toes to polish their turns.
I am not performing. I am scrambling. “For this next part I want you to do whatever you think contemporary dance is,” our leader says. “Some of you do not have a lot of contemporary dance experience.” He means me. “Just pretend you’re really, really high.”
In one sequence, I’m paired with a boy who is in New York from France to attend a pre-professional ballet school. He instantly understands that I’m not a dancer and mercifully tutors me on the sidelines. Occasionally he touches my arm in the way you might comfort someone at her mother’s funeral. “You’re doing great,” he says. The number of times I collide with other dancers suggests otherwise.
After the rehearsal, I return to my phone and discover that three things have happened while I was “dancing.”
1. The flash mob task I just rehearsed for has been canceled on TaskRabbit, which means I won’t get paid unless I get the event company to repost the task.
2. The gift-wrapping job I’ve booked for the evening wants me to come in earlier than first agreed upon, during the time I’ve scheduled to complete administrative tasks for someone who asked to meet at the Harvard Club of New York.
3. Someone accepted my bid for another gift-wrapping job during the same already-double-booked time slot. They’ve sent me two text messages, the last of which is a simple, frustrated “Hello??”
My best-laid plans are going awry.
I text and walk at the same time, somehow managing to simultaneously avoid other pedestrians and reschedule all the gift wrapping I’ve been assigned.
I arrive at the Harvard Club, and although I’ve changed into clothes that comply with the dress code, I feel like I belong here about as much as I belonged at the dance studio. My bright blue backpack clashes with all of the black suits, and I look more like a coat-check girl than a member.
My short-term employer, Greg, has requested that I meet him by the fireplace. On our way to “the casual room,” we pass a two-story Christmas tree, an elephant head trophy, and so much rich mahogany that I feel as though I’m stuck wandering around a satire of New York City’s intellectual elite rather than its actual hive. We make tea when we arrive at the bookshelf-lined den where we will work.
Greg has been looking for some part-time help. “A lot of it can be done virtually, but I wanted to have this face-to-face meeting first.” In other words, this three-hour $45 task is a test for a potential job.
He leaves me alone with my assignments. Reschedule a first-class airline ticket. Inform the state of New York that Greg’s LLC has been absorbed into a new C-Corp. Reformat an Excel document of contacts so that it can be easily uploaded into his Gmail account. I finish right on schedule, and Greg says that if I want to work for him, I should send him an email. “We can set up direct deposit,” he says. “The full rate is $17 an hour.”
It’s not the first time I’ve been offered a job on TaskRabbit. Though it’s against TaskRabbit’s rules, Marge pays me in cash after my first homework help visit. “I don’t want you to get in trouble,” she tells me. But by cutting out the middleman platform, she can pay me $5 more every hour.
Some employers use TaskRabbit as a job board. A karate studio I apply to assist for a day sends me an email asking for my resume. “Just so you know, I’m planning to hire several different people over the next few weeks to ‘try’ them out.”
A startup that describes itself as “a food site that offers the best alternative to sourcing home-cooked meals” requests that TaskRabbits bid $1 on a task. “This Monday and Tuesday will be an open call for servers–no payment, just interviews and possible [sic] some training,” it says. Another task poster cancels the personal administrative task he’s scheduled and instead asks me to call him for a job interview.
These offers to go “off TaskRabbit’s books,” as it were, are tempting. Setting up a full day of gigs–or even a gig in a target free period–isn’t easy, and it often takes as much effort as applying for a regular economy job. I get rejected from about five tasks for every one I win. Sometimes I hold spots in my calendar that I could fill with other tasks for jobs I’ve bid on but haven’t heard from. I’m essentially competing for every hour of my employment.
Even if I land a gig with a decent hourly wage, it typically looks like nothing once I factor in the time spent looking for jobs and commuting between them. Despite the oft-repeated promise of the gig economy, in fact I have no control over when I work, because the only way to get gigs is to be available sporadically and often without much notice. For example, the only people who respond to my DogVacay profile want a dog sitter over Christmas, when I am also out of town.
So when Marge offers me cash for tutoring her sullen teenage daughter, I don’t feel bad accepting her offer. Nor do I feel bad when, after wrapping 40 holiday gifts for a business consultancy, they ignore our TaskRabbit agreement and instead hand me some twenties. Or when I tell Greg at the Harvard Club that I’m up for taking on his other work. It’s the quickest route to a 20% raise I’ve ever encountered.
That may be why Zaarly, the platform that first introduced the concept of a new kind of employment to me, eventually pivoted to focus on generating leads for small businesses. “It will be interesting to see from a macro perspective how much you can pull together a full-time job out of a collection of small jobs, versus how much what we’re really talking about doing is help people discover the thing they want to spend all of their time doing,” Fishback says today. TaskRabbit also seems to have come around to this line of thinking. After a couple of weeks on the platform, a new type of task appears, labeled “jobs.” It is part of a “TaskRabbit for Business” offering that launched in May. These tasks, which come with W-2 forms, require you to submit a cover letter and connect your LinkedIn profile. It’s a tacit admission that gig economy platforms may ultimately be an app-powered temporary employment agency rather than a revolutionary new form of work.
My experiences in the gig economy raise troubling issues about what it means to be an employee today and what rights a worker, even on a assignment-by-assignment basis, are entitled to. The laws regarding what constitutes an employee have not yet caught up to the idea that jobs are now being doled out by iPhone push notification.
In a recent lawsuit filed against Uber–in the wake of an incident in which a driver hit and killed a child pedestrian on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco–the prosecuting attorney is arguing that Uber drivers are employees because their vehicles are logged by the Uber App and are therefore “on the clock” even when they don’t have a customer in their car. Postmates asks their workers to sign up for shifts. Zirtual asks them to be available during working hours. And most gig economy platforms have a system for weeding out employees who don’t get good reviews from customers. TaskRabbit “removes” them after the “second strike.”
I ask Postmates CEO Bastian Lehmann whether he thinks there’s a case to be made that his couriers are actually employees. “I don’t think it’s up to the companies or the startups to decide whether there’s an argument to be made or not,” he tells me. “There is a law that defines how you employ people, and that law allows independent contractors to be working for companies under specific conditions. If people want to change the scope of the discussion, then I think we have to discuss what is allowed by the law and not what a startup does.” Lehmann then trots out the now very familiar argument about how these independent contractors can choose to take the jobs or not, and he points out that FedEx also uses independent contractors (it contracts with small businesses to pick up, deliver, and transport packages).
By Lehmann’s math, Postmates couriers are making pretty good money. About 20% of couriers on Postmates’ platform are working the job as their primary source of income, he tells me. And for those who might complain they aren’t even making minimum wage as a Postmates courier (a charge leveled on Internet message boards and picked up by The Register), Lehmann thinks they’re doing it wrong. “Saying we don’t provide minimum wage, that’s like saying, I’m driving for Uber and there is not enough jobs at 6:00 in the morning,” he says. “It’s like saying, I don’t make any money on Airbnb because I only rent my apartment out on Wednesday night.”
My last call is to Leah Busque, CEO and founder of TaskRabbit, to seek comment on many of the problems that I and my fellow TaskRabbits have encountered while working on her platform: the difficulty of scheduling work, the lack of insurance, the desire for recurring work. Busque tells me that a platform revamp is scheduled to go live in the United States this year and that it will address some of these issues. She says that she’s “looked into a benefits program” for TaskRabbits and it’s “in the works.”
But Busque is emphatic that her company’s responsibility to TaskRabbits is only to provide the best platform possible–nothing more. “We’re about empowering these independent contractors to build out their own businesses,” she says. “We don’t want them to be TaskRabbit employees. It’s good for them to have the autonomy and the drive to do what they want, when they want, for the price that they want.”
Given the challenges I witnessed in making a living wage via TaskRabbit, I ask Busque how many people are able to work full-time via her labor market. She puts the percentage of TaskRabbits who use the site as their sole income at about 10%, and she says they “cash out” about $5,000 or $6,000 each month. Another 75%, according to TaskRabbit, “rely on the service to pay their bills.”
Busque would like to see both numbers increase. “I think we have a real opportunity to match our vision,” she says, “which is to revolutionize the way people work. And to do that, we have to see more and more people using the platform full-time.”
By the last day of my employment in the sharing economy, I’ve booked precisely zero Fiverr gigs. Nobody has invited me to cook pizzas at their hipster special occasions (and after about a month, my menu has mysteriously disappeared from the site). Apparently the people of Manhattan are better with Scotch tape than I anticipated, because I have not had a single Skillshare student. WunWun still hasn’t responded to my application. I have had two DogVacay requests that I could not accommodate. Two of the services on my list, Prim and Cherry, have shut down. One of them, Exec, was acquired. It had started as an broader errand-running business, and one of the founders wrote a farewell blog post in which he noted that “it was difficult to get [people seeking supplemental income] to stick around when we couldn’t guarantee work.”
I have come to realize that one of the cruel ironies of the gig economy is that even though it’s geared almost exclusively to serve urban markets, the kind of densely packed cities where space is at a premium, one needs a car to have a shot at the cream of the work that’s available. Even worse, the universe of gig economy startups is mostly relying on young people and others who are underemployed–exactly the people whom are least likely to be able to afford a car in a city. Or have an extra bedroom. Or a parking space. Or designer clothes. Or handyman skills.
When I’m looking for dependable work, I find myself at the bottom of the digital employment totem pole: Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s freelance marketplace. More than 500,000 people–many of whom live in the U.S.–have signed up on the site to complete mundane, repetitive tasks posted by such companies as Twitter, LinkedIn, and AOL. Site veterans can earn qualifications that allow them to accept better, higher-paying tasks (my college degree has no pull here). My best asset is that my IP address is registered in the United States. It’s a prerequisite that allows me to take some of the better job, like spending 24 minutes taking a survey that pays $0.70.
I spend the biggest chunk of my time, about two hours, labeling photo slideshows at a nickel each. Each of them has five photos, and each photo has 11 pages of labels to use on it. That means that it takes at least 55 clicks to earn $0.05. There are slideshows of cats on couches. Cats on beds. Dogs on beds. Cats in sinks. Dogs with cakes. Cats with cakes. Cats with pizza. Cats with windows. Dogs in car mirrors. Dogs with bananas.
On my way to completing 61 slideshows, I begin to resent Larry Zitnick, the Microsoft researcher who posted this maddening task. When I call him later, he’s actually quite nice. Zitnick explains that my slideshow labels are helping to train a computer to recognize images. “In the early 2000s, our datasets generally had hundreds or maybe a few thousand images in them,” he says. “And now we had have datasets with millions of images in them. It’s because of Mechanical Turk.”
Labeling slideshows suddenly feels very important. But it still doesn’t pay. I make $1.94 an hour. Research suggests most people, like me, aren’t making substantial income off their Mechanical Turk work. Only 8% of workers surveyed by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, said that Mechanical Turk income always helped them meet their basic needs.
My best day at TaskRabbit suddenly seems like a winner. I made $10 an hour at the dance job (not counting the performance that will take place the next day), $15 an hour at the Harvard Club, and about $20 an hour wrapping presents: $95 in total. My eight-and-a-half hour day was a best-case scenario. There was no downtime. The only break I had was a 10-minute lunch that I grabbed next to TaskRabbit user Mark’s apartment before gift wrapping his presents. But when you factor in the time I spend commuting between tasks, I only made $11 an hour.
That week, I make $166 on TaskRabbit, which is $46 above the median active TaskRabbit in my neighborhood. I also made $100 in cash from the tutoring job that started on TaskRabbit but was paid off the platform.
Near Central Park the next day, in the second blizzard of the year, my fellow dancers breathe into their mittens for an hour while waiting for the choreographed marriage proposal. “I would never say this professionally,” says the choreographer, “But I don’t fucking care. Do whatever you need to do to stay warm and get through this.” The girl from Sweden doesn’t have any boots. She fantasizes out loud about going home to stick her feet in the bathtub as we all jump around trying to stay warm. I mention the $20 I’m making, which at this point seems rather low. The dancers stare at me. It turns out that I and two other TaskRabbits are the only members of the group who are actually getting paid.
“Wait, what’s the name of this app?” asks the dancer from Brazil, his voice shaking with shivers. “I can use it.”