Rise And Grind: In The Gig Economy, Time Is Pennies
To say that the effervescent Liza Koshy, 22, with over 22 million YouTube subscribers combined between her two channels, is at least moderately secure in her position amongst the Internet's favorite personalities would be an understatement. Starring in YouTube Premium's (previously YouTube Red) newest comedy, Liza On Demand, Koshy plays a twenty-something who's "all side hustle and no main hustle," relying on odd jobs here and there to keep herself afloat. But what does it mean to be all side hustle? What even is a side hustle? Why is this a narrative that we should care about, and why was cyberspace's sweetheart chosen to tell it?
Well, it all comes down to the gig economy, its relevance in contemporary society, and who it benefits from such a biased labor structure…or more importantly, who does not.
THE BASICS OF GIG ECONOMICS
Gig economics, or digital platform economics, refers to the fascinating call-me-when-you-need-me trend pervading contemporary cultures all over the world. Applications like Lyft, Rover, and Shipt allow people who are often traditionally “unemployable” (e.g. experiencing disability, lacking experience or education, having familial responsibilities) to earn money and thereby gain socio-economic mobility. Those who simply want to work for themselves – often young people – also tend to populate gig apps. These workers can choose their own hours, and may even be able to overlap gigs, technically working multiple jobs at once. By using mobile phone and desktop apps to bridge the gap between consumers who need goods/services now with workers who need money now, the gig economy creates an environment where everyone wins.
Or does it?
THE LOSSES TO BE GAINED FROM GIGGING
The big-wig investors and CEOs behind gig applications, often drowning merrily in old money, devolve incredible responsibility onto their giggers. It’s a world where white-collars sit in ivory towers, depending on blue-collars for doing their dirty work, carrying out the contractual obligations they’ve made with clients, and multiplying wealth they’ve already accumulated.
Because these companies undertake legal culpability should any transactions performed in their name go awry (which, yes, is a great thing for individual worker bees), they seem to consider themselves entitled to fervently exploiting their giggers.
Where’d your money go?
What may not be obvious is that when you work a digital side hustle, you rarely make as much money as outsiders tend to assume. Rover, a popular dog sitting app, keeps 20% of its sitters' earnings – this I know from personal experience. After completing a gig on Task Rabbit, you fork up 30% of what you've made. A study done by ridestar.com revealed that though Uber claims to collect 25% of driver earnings, the actual number is much higher.
On these platforms, wage theft is a commonality. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides full-time and part-time workers in America with base-level rights. These include but are not limited to minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor laws. However, under its laws, the FLSA only protects official employees, creating a cheeky loophole that gig-employers like to jump through.
They tend not to claim giggers as employees, rendering FLSA protections rather unprotective. Suddenly, American workers – whether part-time or full-time – can legally be compensated at less than minimum wage.
I’ve seen this myself as a Rover dog sitter. In order to stay competitive with other local sitters and dogwalkers, I am forced to reduce my rates to dirt-cheap amounts. For an entire day of dog sitting, for example, I charge only $20 (for puppies, a discount makes things even cheaper – $15). After Rover takes its cut, I receive only $16…three days later. For what could feasibly be a 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. job, this amounts to less than one dollar per hour. And because Rover neglects to adopt me as an official employee, it’s completely legal. Pretty gross, huh.
Unfortunately, as a student buried by loans – not to mention as a person existing most basically within this world – I must make money wherever and whenever I can. Even when that money comes out to $0.88 per hour.
Where’d your benefits go?
Because of the FLSA loophole, a gigger usually has little to no worker benefits. No health insurance. No company-backed 401(k). The gig economy is an exhausting wasteland without regulations, allowing hard-working people to be taken advantage of in ways beyond puny paychecks. Though some states are currently fighting to create benefits for gig-workers, these proposals usually die off soon after they’re pitched. The result? Overworked workers with uncertain futures.
The gig economy provides jobs on an episodal basis. Accordingly, a gigger with a side-hustle for a main-hustle may not know where their next meal is coming from. Not until they’ve already eaten it, that is.
If we are aware of this immense pressure to always be working, to always be “on call,” how can we realistically expect giggers to find the time to research alternative sources of health insurance (let alone to pay for a plan)? It’s illegal under the Affordable Care Act for a person to go without health insurance, but considering the struggles some face merely to find employment, it’s not hard to see how 44 million Americans live uninsured, fearful of breaking a bone they cannot afford to have cast.
Where’d your freedom go?
Gig application companies are not completely without regulation, however. On the contrary, most enforce strict protocols regarding how a worker must perform the services they offer. On Rover, for example, some of these protocols include never accepting cash or tips, compulsively booking services through the app’s interface (as opposed to privately texting a return client), and only walking one client’s dog(s) at a time. While it is said that these protocols exist to keep workers safe and clients happy, in reality, they often they prevent many from making as much money as they would if they were to start their own small business or begin freelancing. There, they would have creative freedom to perform jobs – and earn money – as they saw fit. (See below.)
According to the IRS, in order to be considered an employee, the business one works for “must control what work or services will be done” and “how the work or service is done.”
So far, the decision to classify giggers as “self-employed contractors” instead of “employees” has held up in court; but it goes without saying that there are holes to be poked in such logic.
By listing a finite collection of services within their apps, the gigs’ digital interfaces do control what work/services can be done. And hefty protocols do the manner in which those services are completed. As a result, it can be argued that gig app companies employ employees as outlined by the IRS.
Yet, this piece has not yet explored what may be the most wicked aspect of the gig economy: discrimination.
The people who find themselves cornered into working a gig economy job often walk through the world three paces behind their more privileged peers.
It’s the forty-something man who never went to college.
It’s the single mother without access to childcare.
It’s the chronically ill and the disabled, often invisibly so.
It’s people of color. It’s queer folk. It’s women.
It’s so many of us.
Though 30% of giggers identify themselves as “Free agents” and 40% as “Casual earners,” a minority remains. They deserve our attention; as such, this article isn’t about the comfortable majority. Our attention must go to the 14% of giggers who identify as “Reluctant” to seek independent work and the 16% who call themselves “Financially strapped,” for these are the people whose agency is being reduced, regardless of any prevailing thirst they might have for something better…something more.
Socially disadvantaged peoples are slighted by the gig economy while simultaneously encouraged to thank corporations for their invitation to participate in it. It’s a cycle I’m consumed by again and again.
For me, as a chronically ill person, employment opportunities can be scarce. My frequent, unforeseen bouts of sickness make it so that any position in which I’m expected to fulfill a regular schedule results in me not only failing my employer, but my coworkers as well. Anytime I go to the hospital, someone must cover for me. And it doesn’t matter if nobody’s available, because someone has to do it.
This situation positions me frustratingly in the world. It forces unto me to embody angry, desperate energy. It screws me over while making me feel guilty for looking my gift horse in the mouth. The digital platforms of gig economics only multiply my desire to occupy an able body, but I am stunned into submission, too afraid to speak up and ask to be given the rights of healthy people. After all, this is an opportunity to work. And at the end of the day, isn’t that all I’m really asking for?
Despite the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, it’s not unheard of for employers to avoid hiring people with disabilities. After all, they may introduce headaches that could cost the company money (gasp!). The same goes for able-bodied people, but instead of being discriminated against because of their abilities, they are discriminated against because of their sex, gender, sexuality, race, color, religion, national origin, age, or genetic code, completely violating federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws. It’s a deep truth of this country that despite being qualified, many are denied jobs. And those denied people have to go somewhere.
In this globally digital age, for some people, “somewhere” is the realm of side-hustle apps.
Institutional condescension deprives marginalized people of opportunities offered to those with more privilege, but lies about it. The narrative spun is one of capitalistic mythology: that if you get creative and work hard, you can make just as much money as anyone else. But it’s simply not true – at least not for everyone.
That said, don’t be tricked into thinking that privilege sidesteps the gig economy entirely. According to the Washington Post, “To get started [with Uber], you’ll need a fairly new car, a driver’s license and clean driving record and an iPhone to access Uber’s app that connects you with riders (if you don’t have an iPhone, you can pay Uber $10 a week to rent one).” Suddenly, this supposedly “attainable” job is now unattainable to huge pockets of America. For not everyone has a new car – not everyone has a car, at all. Not everyone has a license, nor a path to obtaining one, which is a fact unearthed years ago thanks to conversations regarding election discrimination and voter identification laws. Even within a lonely, economically disenfranchised community like a gig economy app, social hierarchies exist. Loudly and proudly.
Intersectionality neglects no one. I do not have my health, but I have my license. This I am aware of.
In his 2017 piece "Is the Gig Economy Working?" Nathan Heller, of The New Yorker, writes this:
“Some on-demand workers are part-timers seeking survival work, akin to the comedian who waits tables on the side. For growing numbers, though, gigging is not only a living but a life. Many obvservers see it as something more: the future of American work.”
This should read as a terrifying sentiment. The future of American work should be one that workers can actually survive inside of; wages dipping well below the supposed legal minimum is no way to ensure that happens. Americans cannot survive in such a world, and contemporary giggers – myself included – seem to agree.
So to Liza Koshy, the self-proclaimed “little brown girl” tasked with telling the story of giggers all over the world, I thank you. You are widely loved, and you’ve agreed to cinematically recreate an experience that often goes widely ignored. On and off the screen, you are sweet, relatable, and funny.
What’s even funnier, though, is imagining how much money you must have made by pretending to be broke like the rest of us.