Tyrita Franklin-Corbett knew she was risking her health delivering groceries during the coronavirus pandemic, but she didn't expect to be laid up by a dog attack.
Furloughed from her job as an auditor at a public accounting firm in May, the single mother of a 12-year-old son from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, started to take on more shifts with online grocery pick-up and delivery service Instacart.
Franklin-Corbett, 45, had been an Instacart "shopper" for several years to supplement her salary, but she never imagined the app-based work, with its wild swings in earnings and no health insurance or sick pay, being her sole source of income.
"It's a gig, not a career," Franklin-Corbett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "When I was in the office, I knew what my paycheck was going to be every day. With this, you do not know. There's a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty.
"You don't know if you're going to have to carry four cases of water up three flights of steps. You don't know how much traffic you have to sit in if you want to make 40 bucks."
Aside from carting heavy groceries and risking exposure to the coronavirus, Franklin-Corbett was bitten on the foot by a customer's dog in March.
"It was horrific," said Franklin-Corbett, who had to stop work for two weeks, getting $60 compensation from San Francisco-based Instacart and $1,600 from the customer's insurance plan.
But with the pandemic sending unemployment to highs not seen since the 1930s Great Depression, more people are joining the growing U.S. army of gig workers, competing for jobs they say pay less and less while trying to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Gig workers are independent contractors who perform on-demand services, including as drivers, delivering groceries or providing childcare - and are one-third more likely to be Black or Latino, according to a 2018 Edison Research poll.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that 55 million people in the United States were gig workers - or 34% of the workforce - and this was projected to rise to 43% in 2020.
Of these about 1.6 million are part of a growing group of workers to emerge in the past decade, paid by tech platforms like ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft or food delivery apps like DoorDash and Postmates.
In the past 12 months alone, two million Americans have started freelancing, according to a September study from Upwork, a freelance job platform.
This ongoing shift in the workforce and calls for greater protection for gig workers has put the issue on the political agenda ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with California voters to decide on a landmark state law ruling such workers as employees.
For while some companies and workers praise the flexibility of gig work for juggling families and multiple jobs, some labor activists fear an economic slump will leave gig workers in dire straits with no safeguards like minimum wage or health cover.
'FELT LIKE A FREE FALL'
Gig workers were included when the U.S. government introduced a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March.
The bill included payments of up to $1,200 each to millions of Americans, increased and extended unemployment benefits for workers including contractors, and small business loans.
But after the initial round of pandemic-related aid dried up in August, job growth has slowed more than expected with COVID-19 cases rising and the number of deaths nearing 220,000.
Lawmakers remain in a deadlock on further aid ahead of next month's election, adding further uncertainty to an already weak U.S. economic recovery in which many companies and workers initially facing job furloughs are now permanently laid off.
In September the number of unemployed people in the United States was 12.6 million compared to 5.7 million a year earlier, with an overall jobless rate of 7.9% but higher numbers among teenagers, Blacks and Hispanics, according to government data.
One of those laid off was Serenety Hanley, whose career in digital communications included a stint in the White House under President George W. Bush.
The 45-year-old single mother was let go from a retail job in March and now makes a living by shopping for Instacart, whose orders jumped fivefold during the pandemic as consumers grew wary of venturing out to stores.
Living off money she makes lugging groceries and dipping into a college savings account set aside for her 11-year-old son, Hanley said she still can barely make ends meet.
"It felt like a free fall," said Hanley, who lives in Arlington, Virginia.
"(But) even though I'm not getting the same benefits as a white-collar job, I do appreciate that I have an opportunity to make money at all."
FELL THROUGH THE CRACKS
Getting government help has proved difficult.
After the relief bill was passed, many state authorities were overwhelmed by applications for unemployment pay, with a record 10 million Americans filing for assistance in late March and April, and many gig workers fell through the cracks.
Franklin-Corbett said she received her federal stimulus check but, despite calling Maryland state offices regularly, she has not gotten the additional unemployment benefits she is due.
She was also concerned that the delivery business during the pandemic had attracted a flood of new workers who lost other jobs so the pay was no longer as good.
Instacart said this month that it had brought on 300,000 new "shoppers," more than doubling its workforce to 500,000.
Prior to the pandemic, Franklin-Corbett said she could make up to $300 in a few hours. On a recent trip that took more than an hour and a half, she made $9.
"I have to work twice as much to make half of what I was making to survive," she said.
DRIVING DEMAND DOWN
Other areas of the gig economy, particularly ride-hailing services, have taken steep hits with fewer people traveling.
Lyft's number of active riders fell 60% to 8.69 million during the second quarter, according to the company's latest earnings report. Uber's gross bookings declined 75% overall in the second quarter, the company said in August.
Ayana Headspeth, 33, a mother-of-four from Montgomery County, Maryland, became one of Washington's first 100 Uber drivers in 2014 and has made her living with the largest gig platforms including Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash.
But to protect herself and her children from coronavirus, she stopped driving in late March and hasn't driven since.
Not only were there health risks, driving for Uber became financially "pointless," said Headspeth.
"The last time I drove, I drove around for three-and-a-half hours and I made $11, which has never happened in the history of me doing Uber," she said.
"My very first night doing Uber, I did Uber for an hour-and-a-half and made $40 - and this was when no one knew what Uber even was."
Amid the pandemic, Kristie Taylor, a single mother of three from Leesburg, Virginia, also quit driving for Uber after five years of using the work to supplement her salary as a full-time elementary school teacher.
"People are going out because they want a change of pace .... but are they going out and partying and getting drunk and calling Ubers? No," she said.
"And is it worth it to make $12 to $15 an hour to risk exposure?"
Pre-coronavirus, trips to and from Reagan International Airport were a sure way for Uber and Lyft drivers in the Washington D.C. area to pick up longer, more profitable, rides.
But during one recent morning rush hour, the designated area for drivers waiting for passengers was only half-full.
"What can we do? We have to stay cool and pray and wish this pandemic to end," said Uber and Lyft driver Ali Mohammadzai, 32, an Afghan immigrant, who had been waiting an hour for a fare.
He said less people were also willing to give tips now.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR FRAUD
Headspeth, who has worked predominantly for Instacart since the pandemic began, said a flood of new customers prompted a surge in those falsely reporting missing or incomplete orders in order to scam Instacart and not pay for groceries.
She said those complaints chip away at her rating - and pay.
Instacart uses a star system in which its shoppers are rated for their job performance; those with higher ratings have access to larger and more costly orders so they can make more money.
"When I'm a five-star rating, there are days when I'm seeing orders well over $100," said Headspeth.
"Since I've been at this rating - I've been stuck in the 4.5 to 4.7 range - the largest orders I'm seeing are about $30."
"When you're taking away from my ratings, you're taking away from my ability to make bills, my ability to buy groceries, my ability to clothe my children because this isn't just a gig for me, this is how I make it."
Instacart said in written comments that its aim was to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers and to "deliver the best possible shopper experience" for customers.
"We're focused on serving as an essential service for millions of families, while providing immediate earnings opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people across North America," the company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
CONTRACTORS VS. EMPLOYEES
Some gig economy companies have faced lawsuits accusing them of misclassifying workers as independent contractors who are cheaper than employees with no entitlement to the minimum wage, overtime pay and reimbursements for work-related expenses.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, independent contractors cannot join unions and so do not have legal protection when they complain about working conditions.
Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have launched a campaign to overturn a law in California, California Assembly Bill 5 or AB5, the first in the country, that took effect this year making it harder to classify workers as contractors in the state.
The companies have spent more than $100 million on a "Yes on 22" campaign supporting a California voter initiative on the November ballot that, if passed, would overturn the AB5 law.
"A forced employment model will have devastating consequences for drivers and consumers who use these services," said Geoff Vetter, a spokesman for the "Yes on 22" campaign.
"Rideshare and delivery drivers want to remain independent contractors, they do not want to be employees. They prefer independence because it provides the flexibility to choose when, where and how long they want to work."
But the surge in newcomers to the sector and the challenges posed by the pandemic underscore the need to classify gig workers as employees, according to labor rights campaigners.
"It's really just rearranged the chess pieces on the chess board," said Katie Wells, a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, whose research centers on the D.C. gig economy.
"It may have shone some more light on some corners that were previously dark, but at the end of the day, this is still a pernicious and exploitative workplace that involves a lot of hard work and a lot of risk."
Uber and Lyft each would face more than $392 million in annual payroll taxes and compensation costs if they paid workers as employers and not contractors, a Reuters calculation showed.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, have voiced strong support for AB5 and have directly called on voters to reject the companies' ballot proposal to weaken it.
Republican President Donald Trump has not commented on the issue, but in September, the U.S. Department of Labor published proposed rules that would allow the ride-sharing companies to maintain independent contractors across the country.
As she dashed from the supermarket to her car with bags loaded with groceries, Franklin-Corbett said gig work had filled a gap for many people but she was concerned that too many people were now totally reliant on a job-to-job existence.
"I don't think it's a feasible way to make a living, especially if you have children," she said.
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