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Workers in ‘gig’ economy worry about future as income vanishes – Business – Savannah Morning News

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Lawrenceville-based children’s magician Stephen Spanks is the founder, owner and sole employee of his business, Never Grow Up Magic.

“It’s just me and the rabbit,” he said, referring to his sidekick, Oreo.

A growing number of American workers have, like Spanks, exchanged the relative security of hourly or salaried jobs for the freedom of working in the so-called gig economy, where they are paid by the job and do not have a traditional boss. A downside is they might have trouble qualifying for unemployment benefits at a time when a record number of Americans are filing claims.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a massive disruption in the gig workforce business model, and future income for independent contractors seems much less reliable than just a couple of months ago.

In 2018, more than one-third of Americans performed gig work in some form, according to Gallup. These one-off workers fill jobs ranging from ridesharing and food delivery to video editing, graphic design, business consultation and, yes, pulling rabbits out of hats.

Many gig workers say they enjoy the flexibility of choosing their own hours, but one common complaint is a lack of benefits, including health insurance and access to unemployment. Some gig workers, from old-fashioned entertainers to app-using rideshare drivers and Airbnb hosts, are already struggling to make ends meet a little over three weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp raised awareness of a looming public health threat through the creation of a coronavirus task force.

Gig workers who ply their trade in front of crowds — people like musicians, event photographers and entertainers — say cancellations are overtaking the booking requests they used to get not long ago.

For Spanks, parents and caregivers started calling to cancel their engagements about March 12, the day when organizers of sports events and other large gatherings suddenly canceled plans.

“In probably about two days, I saw five, maybe six thousand dollars in income just, poof, down the toilet,” he said. “I had some daycare shows coming up for spring break, they’ve all been canceled on me. I had a couple daycare shows last week canceled, I had six or seven birthday parties in the last two weeks cancel on me, everything I had.”

Normally his weekends are booked, but his last show was March 14.

Spanks’ act is tailored for children ages four to eight. He’s praying things will settle down before the typically busy summer season. If he misses out on his summer camp and daycare shows, he could lose another $20,000 of income, he said.

Though getting paid by the gig is an employment strategy at least as old as musicians selling their talents to a local pub, the term now brings to mind app-based businesses like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb that connect people who need a service to those who can provide it.

The number of people who make a living this way exploded since the Great Recession a decade ago, and gig workers are in uncharted territory as demand for everything other than necessities tanks.

Travel is an early casualty of the push for people to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak. Mirroring a big slump in the hotel industry, Airbnb hosts are reporting lost bookings without customary cancellation fees to soften the blow.

The short-term rental company is offering full refunds to guests who cancel reservations. Typically, the hosts get to determine their own cancellation policies. Some property owners say a slew of cancellations following the announcements are drying up their income.

Claudia Aguirre owns three metro Atlanta properties that she rents out through Airbnb, typically to business travelers or overseas tourists. She said longer term landlords might have trouble collecting rent, but Airbnb hosts have it even worse.

“I can’t just lower the rent like other landlords are doing to help them, or push it off and say you can pay me back later when your job starts again. I’m just straight up getting zero income and having to pay a mortgage. I’m going to go through my savings account or hope that I find more people.”

The Atlanta resident has a day job managing a private tutoring agency, but she said she knows people who rely solely on Airbnb to make their living.

“I have friends that have eight to 10 Airbnbs. … They cannot possibly swing that. They cannot possibly cover it with their savings,” she said.

Drivers for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are also reporting a downturn due to the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Ride Share Guy blog, which polled drivers earlier this month.

More than 80% of drivers said they are getting fewer ride requests, and nearly a quarter said they have stopped driving entirely because of coronavirus.

A narrow majority of drivers said they were either considering switching to food delivery or already delivered food.

That’s one sector of the gig economy that appears to be thriving during the COVID-19 outbreak.

San Fransisco-based Instacart, an online grocery delivery service, announced plans Monday to bring on 300,000 new gig shoppers over the next three months to help meet demand for doorstep grocery delivery – more than doubling its workforce. About 9,000 of those new shoppers are set to deliver to Georgians.

Instacart is one of several services that offer delivery without contact between the customer and driver with a doorway dropoff. Others include Doordash, Uber Eats and GrubHub.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill tell reporters they are on the verge of a multi-trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus package, but it’s not clear what support the final product could offer for gig workers.

Spanks, the magician, said he’s not confident it will help people like him.

“I’m so frustrated with our government right now because they’re wanting to give money to Delta Air Lines and they’re wanting to do all this stuff for unemployment insurance, but none of that helps me because I’m self-employed,” he said. “I’m gig income, I’m a private contractor. And there’s nothing that they’re doing that’s going to put money in my account and help me pay my bills.”

This piece originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on connecting public policies to the stories of the people and communities affected by them. Read more at GeorgiaRecorder.com.

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Workers

Denver’s Gig Economy Workers Share Their Stories

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Photo by Victor Xok on Unsplash

Caught between the new coronavirus and earning a living, the Mile High City’s independent workforce opens up about how Lyft, Amazon, Instacart, and others are supporting them (or not) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In many ways, gig economy workers have become the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 crisis, often facing frontline exposure to the virus without the protections—including health and unemployment benefits—provided to traditional employees. Some companies have made efforts to support workers during this time, such as offering two weeks of sick pay for those diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. But even workers ordered to stay at home by local governments have experienced challenges getting the companies approve their claims.

Last week, which began with Instacart and Amazon employees and contractors striking for higher pay and better safety measures, several Denver gig workers talked with 5280 about their experiences during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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*Full names withheld at the request of the subjects. 

Nate*: Instacart

People are desperate, but that’s good though. Customers, they feel so bad for us, so a lot of the time they’re tipping us like crazy high. I could work seven days a week nonstop and make a ton of money, but I don’t want to do that because there’s a chance that I could be infected at anytime. Amazon and Whole Foods, their workers are going on strike because they don’t feel safe in these conditions.

The thing is, the last time people tried to strike against Instacart, it backfired on us. We used to have this quality bonus—every time a customer gave you five stars you got an extra $3 on your order. So it was a big incentive for us to give really good service. But when that strike happened, they completely removed it. They said they were going to implement new ways for incentivizing us with promotions, but that didn’t happen until—honestly until the coronavirus started to come into effect. Promotions are like, if you work from noon to 5 p.m., every delivery you do in that span you get an extra $3 per delivery. They don’t care. It’s that simple. They know they can exploit us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Sherrie Salazar: Lyft, Instacart, Postmates

I have always done the express rental program through Lyft and Hertz, but the rental is $250 a week, and I haven’t been making that the last two weeks. Ridership is down. Grocery shopping and food deliveries are through the roof, which is what’s saving us gig workers right now. I just started with Instacart and Postmates during the pandemic. Postmates isn’t a big tipper. Instacart is. My Postmates stuff has all been food delivery; I think maybe customers think they’re paying too much for their food so they’re not going to tip the driver. It’s like, we’re out here making sure you get it. And it’s still warm—or cold, or whatever it’s supposed to be.

I’m a high-risk [patient] if I were to get COVID-19. My heart functions at 74 percent. I have asthma. I have kidney disease. I’m pre-diabetic. I’m still doing my job. I’m being safe about it.

JL*: Lyft

I’m pretty sure I had or still have COVID-19, and I self-isolated the moment I started having symptoms. My children have had it as well. I immediately contacted Lyft to let them know that I would be returning my rental and isolating. I then contacted them to see what relief would be available to me. They indicated that without a positive test result, I get no help. But no one can get tested in Colorado unless they are admitted to the hospital or meet the criteria for high risk. I contacted my primary care physician, and they indicated they would not issue a request for a test because I do not meet the criteria.

I’m convinced Lyft knows that not many people can get tested so they made that a requirement for helping drivers, thus limiting their need to help drivers. This is a crock of shit. I have been driving full-time for Lyft for a year with over 3,900 rides. I would estimate Lyft has made in excess of $40,000 from me. Still, they can’t help me even though I did the right thing and stopped driving. 

Steve*: Amazon Flex

Amazon has said it’s hiring 100,000 workers both in warehouses and as flex drivers. I guess my perception is that they’re trying to bring in a lot of new drivers to increase the pool of people who are picking from available slots so Amazon can avoid surge pricing. My personal opinion is everything Amazon is going to do is going to be in its favor—which is going to decrease the amount it has to pay to do deliveries.

I can certainly understand why people are [striking]: It’s the low pay. It’s all these packages that are coming in from all different locations and you just don’t know if the virus is on any of them. How long can it survive on cardboard packages? With this coronavirus, I’m hoping it does compel some of these companies that are providing gig work to provide better [personal protective equipment]—not only for the drivers’ protection but also for the customers’ protection as well

Stephanie Ramsey: Uber, Lyft, Instacart

I’m not someone who has a savings account that I can fall back on. I’m grateful that I at least have something, because if I didn’t have [Instacart] I would be in a bad position. But yeah, I certainly feel forced into it. There’s not another option, really.

I don’t want this to wreck years of my life financially. I don’t want to get buried. I could stay at home and probably call all of the billing companies, and they would put it off for a little while but—yeah, I’d rather risk going out and getting sick than have to worry about my finances. Definitely.

At this point in time, my tips have been 50 percent and more of my overall earnings. If I was strictly relying on what Instacart is willing to pay me, this would not be worth it. It’s only worth it because there have been a lot of generous people.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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WEBINAR: Demystifying Unemployment for 1099 and Gig Workers

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I’m a single owner of an LLC – should I apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment benefits, or both? I haven’t been eligible for unemployment in the past, but I think I might be now – how does that work?

The Colorado Small Business Development Center is pleased to announce a webinar tomorrow, Friday April 10, aimed at independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary workers.

Get your questions answered about who should apply for unemployment, how to do it, when to expect funds, and more during this webinar hosted by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

When: Friday April 10, at 10am

Register for this Online Zoom Meeting at https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_osmdiJb4SeSqh6S8rKCs0A

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Ask SAM: What the heck are “gig workers”? | Ask SAM

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Q: What the heck are “gig workers”? I keep seeing that phrase turn up.

J.W.

Answer: That is a phrase for freelance and contract workers who work short gigs, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, temporary workers especially ones hired for a specific task. According to Investopedia, a business news website, “the gig economy is based on flexible, temporary or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform.”

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