The Intentional Precarity Of Gig Work In America

Hillel Aron is a freelance journalist.

LOS ANGELES — James Hazley’s big break was one of those out-of-nowhere, only-in-L.A. things you hear about happening to people like Marilyn Monroe or Danny Trejo. A year ago, he answered a Craigslist ad to be part of a focus group; as it turned out, it was really a secret casting session for “The Eric Andre Show,” the surreal comedy sketch show on Adult Swim. Hazley ended up getting cast in the role of Blannibal.

But for years before that, he worked a variety of odd jobs — a bouncer at bars like the Surly Goat and the Cobalt Cafe, at warehouses and temp agencies and a security company — and he was a fixture on the indie-rock scene, playing drums and guitar for bands like Peeling Grey and Cockeyed Ghost. The members of Peeling Grey were moonlighting as Uber drivers, and they tried to convince Hazley to do the same. They said you could make decent money, and the hours were flexible. Hazley was certainly used to irregular work at irregular hours. He finally caved in 2017: At around 2 a.m. he’d start his graveyard shift as an Uber and Lyft driver. Later, he added Postmates to his repertoire.

Working deep into the small hours, it seemed to Hazley like half his passengers were drunk or on drugs or both. More than a few puked in the back seat. Once, a teenaged girl punched him in the face after he tried to eject her from his car. Even the sober riders were capable of turning Hazley’s night upside down. Once he picked up a passenger at Burbank airport and took him all the way to Long Beach. The two chatted amiably throughout the long, 30-mile drive, about music. No sooner had Hazley dropped the man off when he got a ping from Lyft, a notification: The customer had noticed a vague rattle in Hazley’s car and had reported him for having auto repair issues. Hazley couldn’t drive until he took his car to a certified mechanic.

Another time, Hazley was trying to deliver cannolis to an apartment in a gated housing complex, Park La Brea. The guard wouldn’t let Hazley — a six-foot-six Black man — through the gate, so he had to leave the cannolis there. The customer had to make the long trek from his apartment to fetch his pastries, and in this state of ire gave Hazley a two-star rating. A low rating like that can hurt a driver’s earning potential, since drivers with high ratings get first dibs on big orders.

When Hazley called to contest the bad rating, he was sent through a gauntlet of call center representatives, each less helpful than the last. Unlike most part-time jobs where workers have the ability to negotiate, to speak with a manager about your hours or your wages or your working conditions, you can’t negotiate with an app. Drivers get a take-it-or-leave-it offer. The app’s logic exists only inside a black box. Uber in particular is famous for calling its drivers “partners” but revealing little of its reasoning behind various decisions.

One morning, Hazley was heading home, having just shut his app off, when a kid rear-ended him at a red light. The car was totaled. Uber and Lyft compensate drivers for car accidents, but only if they’re “on app.” Hazley’s accident came a half hour too late.

“You can’t negotiate with an app.”

Renting a used Prius from Lyft for $300 a week “killed me,” he said. His first two weeks of driving were just to cover the cost of the car. “There’s that calculator in your head about,” he said, “It’s your bills versus what you’re making. In your mind, you’re thinking, am I gonna make it? I’m not. I’m not gonna make it. I’m gonna have to move back to Florida with my aunt. You’re just feeling doomed.”

That feeling of not knowing whether a night’s work will cover your bills is a common one among gig workers in America. Though it’s difficult to count the exact number of gig workers, they make up a growing share of the workforce. The multibillion-dollar supermarket chain Albertsons recently announced that it and some of its subsidiaries, including Vons and Pavilions, will stop using full-time employees for grocery delivery, and instead rely on third-party apps like DoorDash and Instacart.

With the gig economy’s growth has come a backlash from unions, activists and disgruntled drivers. In the fall of 2019, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 5, which classified gig workers and a wide swath of freelancers (including session musicians and online journalists) as employees, giving them protections like minimum wage, overtime, sick leave and unemployment insurance.

Tech companies that rely on gig workers like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart first ignored the law, then drew up a ballot measure to repeal it. The money they spent on the campaign was astounding. Uber shelled out $52 million, Lyft $49 million, DoorDash $48 million. In total, tech companies spent more than $200 million, an unheard-of sum, to convince voters that gig workers should remain independent contractors.

In November, as California voters helped defeat Donald Trump, they also helped give those California-based companies their greatest victory, allowing gig workers to remain independent contractors — although Prop 22 did give workers a wage floor and mandate that full-time drivers receive healthcare subsidies. Activists and union organizers who fought against the ballot measure say those provisions aren’t nearly enough. Uber and DoorDash CEOs, meanwhile, say they’ll export versions of Prop 22 across the country.

“There is no reason for someone to pay you as an employee when they can make you an independent contractor,” said Erstephanie St. Jude, a gig driver and organizer for Rideshare Drivers United. “You don’t have a minimum wage, insurance, anything. And all they have to do is write a law.”

Friedemann Bieber spent half a year as a visiting researcher at Stanford’s department of philosophy in 2018. The German grad student had seen Ubers in Europe, but they were everywhere in northern California, and if you didn’t have a car they were indispensable. Bieber made it a point to talk to every driver he could. He was struck by the precariousness of these new jobs, how subject they were to the whims of the tech companies — which is true of gig workers in Europe as well, but at least there they have universal healthcare and far more generous unemployment insurance.

“It really felt quite shocking how much uncertainty attaches to this,” Bieber said. “And how little safety net there is.”

Bieber recently published a paper, along with another PhD student, Jakob Moggia. Whereas the plight of the low-wage worker is typically seen in Marxian terms — that is, in terms of the power the employer holds over the employee — Bieber and Moggia framed the ethical problems with the gig economy in terms of risk. Gig work, they argued, has shifted a considerable amount of risk from the corporation to the worker. Should demand for Uber fall, as indeed it has during the pandemic, it is the driver that bears the brunt of that downturn, since they spend more time idling in between fares. The driver incurs the risk of his or her car breaking down, of a customer behaving in some belligerent manner, of the tech company tweaking its algorithm, or cutting rates.

“In you’re mind, you’re thinking, am I gonna make it? I’m not. I’m not gonna make it.”

Companies like Uber have been lauded by economists for increasing efficiency and vastly improving on the model of the taxi cab. That efficiency has great benefits. Customers save time and money. Drivers enjoy flexibility; they can clock in and out anytime they want. The companies themselves do quite well — though they have yet to turn a profit. But the cost, Bieber and Moggia argued, is born by the drivers, not just in terms of lower wages but in terms of instability, of not knowing how much money you will be able to make in the weeks ahead.

“Many of the things we value in life are not based on having income, but on the prospect that the income is going to be there in the future,” Moggia said. So many of the things we get enjoyment and fulfillment out of — buying a house, going on vacation, having a child — “require a sustained effort over time.” And our self-worth may to a certain extent hinge on the ability to make and commit to a plan, to experience a sort of long-term narrative arc. It’s important for our lives to add up to something.

That’s hard without some level of stability. Bieber and Moggia cited a paper by the academics Alice Baderin and Lucy Barnes who used survey data from England to argue that, while instances of risk can be invigorating and esteem-building, living with long-term economic risk, or in “prolonged job insecurity,” eats away at our sense of worth, “the value of our commitments and life plans” and our “confidence in our ability to hold ourselves to our standards and to pursue our plans.”

Harry Campbell was an engineer at Boeing when he started driving for Uber part-time on a lark. By only driving at certain times and places, he could make around $30 to $40 an hour — better money than he made at Boeing. One Fourth of July morning six or seven years ago, he made $150 before noon and then went to the beach. He started a website, the Rideshare Guy, which gave advice to other gig drivers. Eventually, the site became so successful that he quit his job at Boeing.

He is, by and large, a booster for the gig economy. He thinks it’s been a net positive for the world, and he thought Assembly Bill 5 was a terrible idea — he said it’s important that gig workers maintain their flexibility. But, he said, “The drivers used to make more. The companies now take more.” He adds: “You don’t see super high satisfaction. You see a lot of turnover. Two-thirds of drivers quit after six months. That’s not great.”

“Every winter, they used to cut rates,” he went on. “Everyone would be outraged. I would be outraged. But then new people would sign up.”

The few who still enjoy gig work after three months of it are generally retirees or people who work a few hours whenever they feel like it, almost like a paid hobby. They enjoy meeting people, seeing different pockets of their city, and having a little extra cash to spend.

“What it boils down to is: this isn’t a normal job,” Campbell said. “But a lot of people come into it with normal job expectations.”

“The cost is born by the drivers, not just in terms of lower wages but in terms of instability, of not knowing how much money you will be able to make in the weeks ahead.”

Those expectations are nourished by tech companies like Uber and Lyft. Through a series of algorithmic nudges and cash incentives, drivers are encouraged to work longer hours in order to hit certain benchmarks. And many drivers come to Uber in desperate situations.

A few years ago, Nicole Moore and her partner were about to lose their home. They’d taken out a bad mortgage with a floating rate, and their payments had doubled practically overnight. So they were forced to get second jobs to make ends meet. That wasn’t so easy for Moore, who worked in the healthcare sector (she preferred to keep the details about her job vague). A friend suggested Uber; he said you could make decent money and work whenever you wanted. Moore started out driving one night a week. For seven to 10 hours of work, she’d make around $200, transferred directly into her bank account. Uber seemed like a godsend.

But soon, her earnings started to slip.

“All of a sudden you realize you’re making less,” Moore said. At first, she wondered if she was doing something wrong. Uber incentivizes drivers to work at certain times and in certain areas by implementing “surge” pricing. Savvy drivers target those surge zones. But it’s easy to slip in and out of those areas without realizing it; drivers who make less than they expect sometimes blame themselves.

But then, Moore said, “people started posting receipts on Facebook groups.” It dawned on drivers that Uber had stealthily cut prices.

It’s exceedingly rare in the modern economy for a company to cut a worker’s wages. Freelance workers (like myself) will typically negotiate a rate before starting a job. But gig workers have little interaction with the actual humans they work for. Instead, an algorithm gives them a take-it-or-leave-it offer. There is no opportunity for negotiation. And Uber regularly cut rates as it waged a price war with Lyft.

“Companies hire you in the short term because they don’t want the responsibility to take care of you in the long term.”

“They would send us a new contract at any time; it could be 2 a.m.,” St. Jude said. “And it’s a 30-page contract in legalese. It would say, sign this or you don’t have access to the platform. And you sign.”

She adds: “It’s the only business where the longer you’ve been in it, the less you make.”

For Bieber and Moggia, the solution to this risk shift is in economics. Rideshare apps, like most industries, have externalities. They affect parties not directly involved in the transaction. Studies have shown that rideshare cars have increased traffic congestion in America’s largest cities. Other studies have shown Uber and Lyft have played a major role in the decimation of public transit ridership, draining money from a system that serves mostly low-income citizens. (Rideshare apps have had positive externalities too; for instance, they have led to a decline in drunk driving in at least some cities.) Putting risk onto drivers, said Moggia, should be treated like an externality — one that could be offset by government policies.

Moggia and Bieber proposed a new tax on companies that use gig workers to fund an extra social safety net. For example, an “underemployment insurance” could “top up” a worker’s weekly income should it dip below a certain threshold.

There is, of course, a chance that the new tax would make using gig work prohibitively expensive for the companies. “Some things are only profitable because you’re not forced to pay the actual social cost,” said Moggia. “Arguably, this is often the case in gig work. Companies hire you in the short term because they don’t want the responsibility to take care of you in the long term.”