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OPINION: We Need the Flexibility Gig Work Promises and Basic Rights

by Carmen Figueroa

I’ve been working as a delivery driver on Grubhub and Postmates for the last four years, but being a gig worker during COVID-19 has been the most surreal experience of my life. The gig companies have experienced a pandemic boom: DoorDash saw sales triple, Instacart signed up a half-million new workers, Postmates and Grubhub were purchased for billions of dollars each, and online delivery became a way of life for millions of customers.

But the bonanza didn’t extend to delivery workers. The overwhelming number of orders combined with food shortages and skeleton crews at restaurants led to extreme wait times for deliveries, so orders that paid just $3 could take up to an hour. Apps took advantage of the influx of newly laid off employees flocking to gig work to push pay even lower, knowing drivers were desperate for orders and would take whatever we could get.

That’s why I’ve joined with thousands of gig workers in the Pay Up Campaign to pass new worker-driven laws in Seattle that raise pay, protect flexibility, and provide transparency to people working in the gig economy. We are not expendable and should not be exploited.

I started on Postmates in 2018, when I lost my job in the medical billing department of a hospital after suffering a serious back injury. The company’s decision to let me go while I was on medical leave may have been legally questionable, but I ran into the same problem again and again. After developing degenerative arthritis in my spine, I found that my injury flare-ups sometimes made it impossible to work in the office, and nobody was willing to provide the disability accommodations I needed.

Gig work is the only source of income I’ve found that works for me. Many workers like me are too disabled to hold down a traditional employee job, but not disabled enough to be on Social Security. I need steady work that gives me the freedom to set my own schedule, cutting a shift short or taking time off if my pain levels are too high, and working at my own pace rather than being held to strict hourly quotas.

That flexibility is crucial for me, and for tens of thousands of workers in Seattle who can’t find traditional jobs that work for our lives. But the apps have driven pay so low that gig workers can’t always exercise the flexibility companies tout as their #1 value. Increasingly, we can’t even make ends meet.

I quit Postmates in 2019 after they released a “new pay model” that was actually a huge pay cut. Overnight, jobs started paying half what they paid before. The final straw was when I realized how Postmates rigged their “bonus” system to avoid paying us for our work. I’d been taking back-to-back orders to earn a Postmates incentive that guaranteed at least $120 for the day as long as we completed a certain number of deliveries before 9 p.m. At 8:15, I wrapped up an order and waited in a hotspot for the final offer I needed to hit the goal. But no offers came through — until 9:01, when my phone pinged with a new order just in time for Postmates to avoid paying the bonus.

When I quit Postmates, I switched to Grubhub. They’ve changed their pay model three times since then. Now they use some kind of crystal-ball method to set rates, and the offers we receive only tell us the combined earnings we can expect between the customer’s tip and our pay — so we don’t know what Grubhub is actually paying until 15 minutes after we drop off an order.

Every app has its own tricks — DoorDash and Instacart were caught stealing tips by lowering their pay when customers tipped more. All of the apps make money by shifting costs of doing business onto workers. On a typical four-hour delivery shift, my pay averages around $45, including the extra $2.50 per delivery hazard pay we won in Seattle. After accounting for mileage expenses, my take-home pay is about $7.50 per hour with an active job — less than half of Seattle’s minimum wage — and that doesn’t even account for any other expenses, or for all the additional time I spend working on the app between offers. By exploiting a loophole in our labor laws, these companies have effectively established a sub-minimum wage for the tens of thousands of workers who rely on gig work, particularly People of Color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and other marginalized workers.

It’s clear to all of us that something needs to change. And while there’s a lot of talk about how to rein in the gig economy, there aren’t enough people really listening to workers about what we need. The vast majority of gig workers agree on three basic principles: We need a pay floor to ensure we’re paid at least minimum wage after expenses. We need protections for our flexibility. And we need transparency. The Pay Up Campaign is fighting to pass these policies in Seattle in 2021 and set a model for other places to follow.

I don’t think I could go back to being a W-2 employee. I don’t want to beg for time off or worry that taking medical leave will get me fired. Too many employers expect that in exchange for a paycheck and benefits, an employee will pause their life and drop everything personal to benefit the company, working unpaid overtime, taking on side projects at home, and missing family events. I don’t want to put so much of myself into a job just to be tossed aside like a broken toy when I can no longer meet these expectations.

But the relative flexibility of gig work should not be a perk that forces us to trade away basic workplace standards. We need the right to control our lives and enough pay to live on. We need to make the gig economy pay up.

Carmen Figueroa works delivering food on Grubhub and has been supporting herself through app-based work since she suffered a serious back injury several years ago.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Elvert Barnes (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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