Sleepless in the Gig Economy

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S1: Look at your phone for a minute. Remember when it still seemed to promise a kind of utopia? It wasn’t that long ago. New apps let you connect directly with private homeowners to book a night on a Brooklyn couch or at a French castle with a smart new rideshare app. You could summon someone’s private car, call a cab. Never again. It all seemed like fun. An easy win for consumers and for workers, too. If you had a smartphone, a decent car, and needed some extra income, you could sign up with Uber or Lyft and hire yourself out as a driver on your own schedule. It’s been about a decade since the launch of companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, TaskRabbit and DoorDash. Now, more than one third of the American workforce spends time gigging to make a living, freelancing, working on temporary contracts or logging into an app. And for many of them, it looks less and less like a utopia and more and more like a brave new world.

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S2: To be driving around under a looming threat of a possible car accident without coverage or family leave or medical leave or be accosted based on the color of my skin. There’s no flexibility in those things that I’ve just mentioned. And so this idea of flexibility was actually just a hoax or wasn’t true at all.

S1: I’m Brigid Schulte. You’re listening to A Better Life Lab. One study of gig workers found that the more employment insecurity they experienced during the day, the more their nights became fitful, sleepless and anxiety ridden sleepless in the gig economy. That’s coming up right after this. It’s Better Life Lab. I’m Brigid Realty. This episode, we’re looking at the gig, work boom and the challenges faced by millions of freelance workers whose work life is in a constant state of flux. To dig into how it really works and how we could make it work better. I’m joined this episode by Quan May. He’s an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University. Quan has published several articles on the new normal of gig work.

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S3: Going from gig work to gig life is a reality, right? But it’s really important to note that, like, major platforms are now only over a decade old and they created a readily available pool of workers. They bypassed the traditional sort of credentialing and mass them in a very efficient way with value and comfort seeking customers. So in many ways, this platform challenge existing markets or create entirely new marketplaces that did not exist before.

S1: So Quan, let me just interrupt really briefly. When you talk about platform, what do you mean?

S3: Oh, I’m talking about Uber, DoorDash, Airbnb.

S1: So what does that mean? It’s like basically the owners are the platform and the workers. What’s their relationship to that platform?

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S3: That’s an interesting point. Right. So they provide the service through the platform, but the platform in many ways, the decider. And they are the arbiter. They are the bridge between the service provider. Well, the workers and the customers.

S1: Yeah. So basically, like if you’re, you know, Uber or Lyft driver, you don’t drive around on your own, right? You need that platform to connect you with people who need rides.

S3: Yeah. You know, in some respect, these services make life a lot easier for customers, but it’s also very worth investigating what it means for the people who actually do the work. Right. So platform work has some really good selling point, right? It reduces bureaucratic intermediaries. It facilitates labor market participation for people who do not live in urban site, who have caregiving obligations, people with disability. And these are folks who are traditionally excluded in some way or another from the traditional labor market. And this platform allows people to unlock values from their cars, their homes, tools, skills without being tied to a specific or traditional employer. So in many ways, they encourage flexibility, they foster entrepreneurship. You get to call your own shots about where, when, how do you want to do the work? There are also arguments about how working through this platform help workers of color avoid problems that the hiring states. You can just sign up and start working without necessarily having to go to a job interview where you might be discriminated against as evidenced by 30 years of academic work on the top.

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S1: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. But it’s almost like there’s too much flexibility in a way, right? There’s no predictability. There’s no stability, and there’s really no worker protections. Right. You know what happens if you get sick? What happens if you crash your car?

S3: Yeah. In practice, there are real drawbacks and there are major difficulties associated with being a gig worker. And Uber and DoorDash have a massive amount of data and control over a gigantic labor tool, allow them to strategically optimize or algorithmically control with very little input from workers and with large shares of gig labor all over the world being in control by a few corporations. Is it really self-employment you’re or are you really working on your own terms? You know, as you mentioned, gig work is inherently precarious. Due to the project to project nature, freelancers are unable to rely on a constant stream of income compared to full time workers who know exactly when their paychecks are coming and what kind of numbers appear on those projects. Freelancers engage in cycles of feast or famine, right? So you think about the cornerstones of the American dream. A house, a car. You know, getting those loan, getting those mortgages becomes a lot more difficult if you cannot prove that you have a constant stream of income that comes in every month. Lenders are hesitant to lend you money when that paycheck is not constant. Everyone who applied for a mortgage or a car loan know that lenders would ask to see your W-2 or bank statements, and they like to see the same number appear with some regularity. But guess what? Like once a mortgage is obtained, the bank will withdraw the same number of amounts every time in the first day. The month, right. The gig workers, they do not show these numbers with any kind of regularity. So social infrastructure hasn’t really caught up with the reality of the labor market.

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S1: So Quan what I’d like to do now is to listen to the story of Sheri Murphy. She’s a pastor in the Bay Area in California. Several years ago, she signed up as a rideshare driver for Lyft.

S2: Started driving live around 2017. Lyft was my primary source of income, and over the years I can say that I’ve logged in over 12. Thousand writes, I was actually in my last year of my Masters in Divinity and getting to start my doctoral program. And I needed a flexible job that would allow me to make money while also loaning me a rental car. And Lyft seemed like a godsend. I was in desperate need, certainly of a car. And in that so-called flexibility.

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S1: What do you mean, so-called flexibility? Did it not work out well?

S2: Over the years, I found myself on a deadly and inflexible cycle, along with many drivers becoming entrapped in working just to afford to keep working. Most of them are immigrants, African-Americans, people of color who work in 60, 70 hours a week and yet still fall below the poverty line.

S1: So you were working full time as well while you were going to school?

S2: Yes. Every passing year I would spend more and more hours in my vehicle, which included unpaid time, waiting for rides and partially covering work expenses like gas rental fees, car expenses. And it was becoming harder and harder to sustain a living. To be driving around under a looming threat of a possible car accident without coverage or family leave or medical leave or be accosted based on the color of my skin, gender or sexual orientation and having no process. There’s no flexibility in those things that I’ve just mentioned. Right. And so this idea of flexibility was actually just a hoax. Wasn’t true at all. Specifically when COVID 19 hit, it became transparent that these corporations cared only about the bottom line. And so workers were left scrambling in the middle of a pandemic, trying to decide whether to face a disease that had the capacity to kill them in order to secure their housing. I know of many people who drove who may have been infected. I know quite a few drivers who died.

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S1: So in in the best days when being a platform driver, working in the gig economy was, was working for you, you know, how much can you make? Was that enough to kind of keep you going?

S2: I can tell you that what it looks like on the end of the tax year is totally different from out of pocket. So what? It looked like I was making money. At the end of the day, when you did your figures, you weren’t making enough. Having lives just load off on surcharges and other things. My income fell below the poverty line.

S1: So Quan, she’s working, you know, really long hours and just feels like she’s falling further and further behind. Is her story pretty common?

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S3: Yeah, absolutely. Workers seem to have very little input in terms of when the algorithm change, in how there are broader surveys that show exactly what Jeremy was talking about. Uber and Lyft drivers seem to be earning less than the minimum wage. Some estimate has it around $8 and a half to $11 an hour. And only a third of what passenger pays actually go towards the drivers. And one in every ten drivers actually lose money doing this. Beyond that, the constant exposure to uncertainty, the fear of driving around and getting into an accident and don’t know what happens after. It really illustrate how gig work can be really quite unhealthy. Gig work can lead workers to be exposed to various occupational risk factors, poor working conditions, adverse psychosocial factors. We’re talking about long hours, odd hours, unpredictable wages and very little autonomy. Right. Creating a stressful experience that has important implications for worker, physical and mental health. And in my own research, I found that gig work actually keep workers up at night.

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S1: So wait a minute. Wait, wait a minute. So there’s there’s so much stress and so much unpredictability in gig and non-traditional work that that people literally can’t sleep at night.

S3: Yeah. I mean, we I found that gig work drive of various measures of insecurity, including job mobility, income insecurity. And these factors in turn predict sleep disturbance among precariously employed worker individuals, including gig workers.

S1: Wow. Yeah. So the gig all day, they hustle, and then they spend all night worrying and unable to sleep.

S3: Yeah, that’s. That’s the story.

S1: We’ll be back with more from Quan by and from Pastor Sherry Murphy after this. I’m Brigid Schulte. You’re listening to Better Life Lab. I’m talking with Quan Mei, an assistant professor at Rutgers University. Gig work is a focus of his research. One of Kwan’s recent journal articles that’s received a lot of media attention was called The Labor Market Consequences of Freelancing in the New Economy. Quan says that the data show that not only is precarious work dangerous for workers, it’s bad for their kids, too.

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S3: In recent months, myself and other collaborators have started to look at how precarious employment affect other dimensions of a worker’s life. We found that being precariously employed, in fact, workers transition to adulthood increases the odds of workers becoming, quote unquote, boomerang kids, you know, either moving back with their parents or failing to move out of their parental homes.

S1: Failure of failure to launch, so to speak.

S3: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

S1: Matters to start out on. You start out on a shaky foot.

S3: Absolutely. Yeah.

S1: You know, so you’re talking about sort of those, you know, kind of structural factors that can lead to to poor health, you know, not having enough money, not having access to health insurance. But then you also mentioned some psychosocial stressors or psychosocial factors, limited control or a high job strain and feelings of powerlessness that that actually has really detrimental health effects from studies that show increases in diabetes to increases in cardiovascular disease. So this is like these are serious health implications for just doing this kind of work, right?

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S3: Absolutely. No doubt about it. Precarious work can lead to social precariousness, folks feeling precarious about their lives. Social marginalization. There are plenty of research to show the transient nature of precarious work or reduce opportunities where meaningful workplace participation be undermined. Ties to others. They reduce interpersonal trust. They diminish the connection between self and society. Boost the feeling, like you said, of powerlessness and loneliness. Some might ask, Why don’t you get to know and talk to new, different people every time you’re in an Uber as a Uber driver? But anyone who has wondered about that should take a look at the quiet preferred mode for Uber drivers where, you know, poor folks can pay more not to talk to Uber drivers in the car. Wow. So these feature really turn drivers into quiet chauffeurs rather than someone that you interact with right now in and research in public health show that all the factors that I mentioned are crucial resources for good health. And it is through these lenses that we can really see how gig work, create adverse conditions, undermines one’s health.

S1: So Quan seems like there’s a huge trade off, then a huge price to pay for this flexibility and so-called independence. You’ve done also some really interesting research that basically shows that a lot of times these gig workers are stuck. You know, once you start doing this kind of gig work, it’s really hard to move on. What have you found?

S3: Yeah. So it’s worth thinking about. Well, you know, if gig work is stressful and unhealthy, what if workers want to transition out of it to embrace an organizational career or go back to the traditional path, so to speak, right? Oh, yeah. In my own research, I’ve found that if you have a history of independent contracting or you’re trying to transition to a full time job, your odds of being invited to an interview is reduced by 30%, which is a significant chunk. So employers are quite hesitant to hire freelancers not because candidates lack skills, but because verifying their skills is difficult. So when I interview hiring officers and other organizational gatekeepers, a very common theme is that this decision makers are much more comfortable reading resumes from applicants with full time history because these candidate have been hired, train or systematically appraise by credible organizations. Contrastingly They have a lot more questions for someone with a freelancing background. There are more data gaps, more mysteries. So in this context where hiring officials have to sift through a large number of applicants, they rather deal with something that is more clear cut and something has been approved by entities that they’re familiar with.

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S1: So this interesting sort of a kind of another another barrier, if you will, kind of another way of credentialing. Yeah, I can imagine that. I would think. Well, if you’ve if you’ve been a freelancer, will you be loyal? Will you stay? You know, yeah. So at this point, let’s go back to Sheri and let’s hear some more of her story. Did you ever think, I can’t do this anymore? I just need to find sort of like a a W2 kind of job.

S2: I was just thinking about going to something else. And then COVID 19 hit. So I didn’t exactly walk away. What I knew and realized would as a public theologian, the call for healing came to my own front door. I was in the middle of a doctorate program, and as a result of that, had identified two agencies who advocate for workers like myself. One of them happened to be gig worker tracing. And so now I’m. Working as a lead organizer with them to advocate for rideshare drivers, to lobby workers for better wages and working conditions with the right to unionize.

S1: Is sort of like building on your own pain, so to speak.

S2: Yeah. And turning it around. You know, as I mentioned, financial stability is one of the greatest challenges facing these type of workers. Having them work 50, 60, 70 hours a week and still can’t make ends meet, living in their cars, can’t afford family leave or health coverage. This type of employment, it’s not like there’s a center or center or a hub where places where people can go to to share their experiences. Right. It’s not like you can go to an office set by the water fountain and engage in conversation or walk into somebody’s office. These are people who are isolated, right? So part of that issue is the ability to identify a place in a platform where people feel safe enough to share their stories and realize that they’re not the only ones that’s going through this.

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S1: So since you’ve since you’ve moved on, you know, how’s your health and wellbeing now?

S2: My stress level is gone extremely down and yet it’s still vital and I’m still heavily involved in making sure that I listen to and centered the stories of those who are mostly impacted, those who can tell the truth, those who understand more than anyone the links that these greedy corporations will go to to build up their legal loopholes so that they can continue to have access to our bodies and our labor without any remedies or any recourse.

S1: So Quan Sheri’s talking about she’s taken her own pain and really trying to use it to try to make real change for other gig drivers. You know, trying to find ways to connect in this isolation, trying to find ways to organize for better work and working conditions. What what is the path forward to better work and and well-being? If this is a kind of work that all the predictions show is only going to continue to grow.

S3: Right. Right. I mean, series account really highlight the major difficulties associated with being a freelancer. Right. Or being a gig worker, sort of the radical individualization of work. You are really on your own when it comes to everything. You are responsible to finance your own insurance plans, retirement accounts. There’s no employer matching. I could imagine that parental leave are guaranteed to produce income gaps. It’s really difficult to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, and it leaves workers really vulnerable to workplace violations. How do you organize when you don’t know who your fellow workers are? There’s no water cooler. There’s no you’re not in the same place. And it’s interesting, the rideshare drivers United, the Organization of Rideshare Workers, they found each other just by hanging out in the L.A.X. parking lot waiting for Rideshares.

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S1: Well.

S3: So Cherise also mentioned the gig workers rising, and along with the Rideshare Drivers United and Freelancers Union, we’re seeing a lot of organizing effort by organizations like this. These workers are trying to transform the gig economy with better working conditions, better benefits, higher pay. And what they’re asking, many believe to be is really standard stuff like living wage transparency on the job, right? Yeah. Really basic stuff. Basics. Yeah. Transparency. Safer working conditions. How do I safely do my work? These are as basic as it gets. And they have to mount lawsuits and legal challenges and organize in grassroots ways just to get this stuff. I mean, there are strikes, quote unquote, of rideshare workers who walked out, quote unquote, just by not signing on to the platform to do the work. I believe the strike took place in in L.A. right before the hotly anticipated Uber IPO. It originally took place in L.A., but soon spread to ten other major U.S. cities and London, too. And the outcome of these strikes are, you know, it remains to be seen when working condition is that poor, when the wages are that low, when one out of ten workers actually lose money. Well, something’s got to change, especially in light of how everyone see how crucial these workers are and how essential they are during the pandemic.

S1: Or just essential work. But expendable workers is sort of how a lot of them tell me that they feel. You talked about the social contract, and I want to go back to that a little bit. You know, that’s sort of this nebulous term, like what is the social contract? It seems like it’s sort of this unspoken agreement that you can live and work well in the United States and that everyone will sort of play their part, whether it’s business and employers treating employees well, that the government will be there if you fall too far. You know, what is the social contract? What’s happened to it? And especially when it comes to gig and contract work and what needs to change moving forward.

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S3: The social contract, you know, many scholars see as somewhat of a relic of the past already. You know, these days it’s not that we are all here for a greater good. It seems like it is the age of individualism that you are really are on your own. You are really a micro entrepreneurs, and you are responsible for your own fate. And it’s a really challenging task. This is a huge uphill battle where gig workers are coming up against the most powerful tech companies who are able to spend more than $200 million to defeat Proposition 22 in California. So there’s a very long way to go.

S1: So you talk about Proposition 22 in California, and that’s the whole debate about, well, should these gig workers be classified as employees, as W-2 employees, and then should that then get them benefits? And you’re right, there was a a huge move to make sure that that did not happen. And the argument that you heard. From tech companies as well. No workers really come to these platform jobs because they want the flexibility. And that is indeed true. And there are benefits, like you mentioned, you know, opening doors to caregivers and women and others for this kind of flexible work. The other thing that I’m beginning to hear, what even tech companies and the, you know, John Zimmer, the co-founder of Lyft and the DoorDash CEO, Tony Schuh, they started saying we don’t want to classify them as employees. You know, platform work is a different kind of work, but there’s a recognition that all of that precarity is bad. It’s bad for people, it’s bad for everyone. It’s bad for society. And so they’re beginning this conversation about portable benefits, that the way that you mitigate all of that, it’s sort of like you’re saying you’re out there flying solo on your own is to come together as a society and agree let’s have universal health care so that if you leave a job, do you have to find a new doctor and a health insurance program? Why do you need to like close your 41k plan and open up a new one? So what about this conversation about portable benefits that you would have health insurance, there would be some kind of public benefit that you would have paid family and medical leave. You know, that there would be this more robust, maybe bouncier safety net, if you will, so that you could have this flexibility, but that you would not have this really costly precarity on the other end.

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S3: When you think about it. Right. The gig workers are really the backbone of their business. Without them, their business would be nonexistent. Right. You know, they are the people who actually do the work and deliver the bottom line. So if these executives take workers well-being and health more seriously and they want to create an environment where workers can do their job in a more sustainable way, where I don’t have to work for Uber and Lyft and for DoorDash and do a million other things, perhaps they will become more efficient workers. Perhaps they will become healthier workers, which in turn benefit these companies in the long run. Yeah. So portable benefits. I mean, I always advocate for a stronger ownership from drivers. I mean, if gig workers ratings instead of belonging to the organization, they belong to the workers themselves. It’s something that they can carry with to another organization that, you know, give them more power, more leverage. So it is a combination of a variety of things. Unions have to find a way to organize them. Perhaps there’s a role of consumers, of customers, and there’s a role for legislators, too.

S1: What would a role for customers be you in sort of demanding better conditions for the people that they rely on for these services?

S3: Yeah, yeah, I think so. You know, customer strikes are not unheard of. They they haven’t appeared in this arena yet. But if the conditions start to worsen, it’s worth thinking about.

S1: Juan May. He’s an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Earlier this episode, we heard from Sherry Murphy, a pastor, organizer and former rideshare driver in the Bay Area. This season, a better life lab where looking at work, stress and the future of work and well-being in America. Next time, it’s the stress of working while black in tech.

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S4: It’s a very insular environment where a race joke will be made. And I’m thinking, I’m like, Yo, this is racist as hell. And people just thinking nothing of it though, you know, you’ve got to quote unquote, roll with the punches. And I find that to be very problematic.

S1: We’ve got work to do. I hope you’ll join us next time on Better Life Lab. For more resources on fairer, healthier work, go to New America dot org. Click the link for Better Life Lab. On behalf of myself and my producer, David Shulman. Many thanks for joining us for our new season. Please review us on Apple Podcasts if you like. The show Better Life Lab is produced by New America in partnership with Slate. Special thanks to Alicia montgomery at Slate for all her work with us. Our podcast is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is committed to improving health and health equity in the United States in partnership with others. Our debut, Jeff, is working to develop a culture of health rooted in equity that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity to thrive no matter who they are or where they live or how much money they have. For more information, visit WW dot RW, JF or. For Better Life Lab. I’m Bridget Shorty.