This week, hosts Jonathan Weiler and Matthew Andrews discuss gig workers with sociology assistant professor Alexandrea Ravenelle. Ravenelle is an expert on the gig and sharing economy, which is made up of independent contract workers such as Uber drivers and Instacart workers.
Alexandrea Ravenelle: It’s really bringing to light the larger issues of inequality in our society. You know, we have workers who are doing Prime Now deliveries and food deliveries, and they’re delivering food and toilet paper and groceries to their upper class, shelter-at-home colleagues who are not leaving their homes. And so we are seeing that some of these essential workers might end up being sacrificial, so that other people can stay safe and stay at home.[musical interlude]
Jonathan Weiler: Welcome back to another episode of “COVID Conversations,” a production of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I’m Jonathan Weiler, a professor in Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill.
Matthew Andrews: And I am Matt Andrews, a professor in the Department of History at UNC Chapel Hill. We’re talking to each other on Zoom. And now our semester has been over for about a week or so. How you keeping busy?
JW: Let’s see, I’m taking walks, watching more TV shows than I should be. I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard.
MA: No, I think that’s right. Yeah, I’m doing a lot of mountain biking. I’m, my Wii golf game is getting pretty good.
MA: I fulfilled a lifelong dream and had a big mess of mulch delivered to my house. So I’ve just been spreading mulch everywhere, which is what suburban men are supposed to do, I think.
JW: Wow, you’re clearly being much more productive post-semester than I am.
MA: Is that right? Well, what I need to do is go and get a haircut. I don’t know if you can see the baseball cap on here. It’s getting desperate. If there’s anyone out there who will come to my house and cut my hair, let me know.
JW: You’re very far from alone in that regard. Today we spoke with Alexandrea Ravenelle. She’s an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is also a fellow in the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship. She’s also a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. And her first book Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy was released in March of 2019.
MA: We talked with Alexandrea about the gig economy in general, the effect of COVID on both the gig economy and the nature of work in the United States much more generally.
JW: Yeah. And in particular, Matt, I just, I was so interested to hear what she had to say about the precariousness of work in the gig economy. And of course, all the ways that that precariousness has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
MA: We looked to the past. We talked about the changing nature of work in early 20th century, in the Great Depression, and then Alexandrea offered up a few interesting insights and predictions about how work might be changing for us moving forward.
JW: And we also talked a little bit about what might be some of the positives, the silver lining, if you will, to come out of this in terms of how this essential, or some might say, sacrificial work, might be better recognized in law and policy in the future.
MA: It was a wonderful conversation, start to finish. And now here is another episode of “COVID Conversations.”[musical interlude]
JW: Hi, Alexandrea. How are you today?
AR: I’m great. How are you?
JW: Good. We’re so happy you’re joining us to talk about the gig economy, your work, and its relevance to the COVID pandemic. And so, thanks so much for joining us.
AR: Thanks for having me.
MA: Yeah. Thank you, Alexandrea. Where are you joining us from?
AR: I am in New York City, in the epicenter of of the Coronavirus outbreak in the US.
JW: So what’s that, what’s that been like? I should note, I grew up in New York City. I grew up in Chelsea, on the West Side and New York City is very much in my heart and mind right now. So can you tell us a little bit about what it’s been like living there these last two months?
AR: Sure. So I’m on the East Side. So just across 14th street from where you grew up in Chelsea, and it has been a little bit of an otherworldly type of experience. You know, New York is usually bustling, you walk down the street and you have to dodge people, and now you dodge people, but it’s because you’re staying six or more feet away from them. Everyone is wearing masks. Most people have them covering up their face. Some people are hanging them, you know, just blow their nose or dangling off of an ear. One of the most surprising things has simply been that when you walk around around 5 o’clock, there is no rush hour anymore. There are very few cars, there’s plenty of parking if anyone wants to go drive to New York City right now [laughter], lots of free parking. They even ended alternate side parking rules. But otherwise it’s been like very, very quiet. And one of the most surprising things for me, there’s a park a couple of blocks away that I would go and walk through, walk the dog, walk the kids. And one day I just sat down in the park, which is near a local hospital, but I didn’t think that where I am in the East Village was that big of an outbreak yet. And all of a sudden, there’s this noise that sort of startled me. It’s like this humming and I looked behind me and I realized that the large trailer that I was sitting maybe 25 feet from, had just turned on, and it was actually one of those refrigerator morgues.
AR: Yeah. And I later saw them actually building a ramp to make it easier to wheel bodies into it. So that’s been sobering.
MA: That’s startling. Yeah, absolutely.
JW: On a, I guess, a somewhat lighter note or poignant note maybe, you mentioned Alexandrea that there’s no rush hour now. I saw in the New York Times the other day that it had been 58 days in a row, during which New York City had not experienced a pedestrian fatality. And that was the longest streak since they’ve started keeping those records. which I just think is its own interesting testimonial to the degree to which the streets have been cleared over these last couple of months.
MA: Probably the longest streak since automobiles were invented.
JW: Maybe so-
MA: -or maybe even horses. Yeah.
AR: Yeah, probably even horses. Yeah, I mean, it’s, which is also sort of interesting because there’s so many more people on bikes than you would normally see.
AR: And so yeah, I mean, and people are not taking the subway. People are very much scared to be on public transportation right now.
MA: Well, Alexandrea we want to get to our topic but can I ask you how your, I mean, obviously our semester was interrupted midway through, you’re about a, were you teaching this past semester?
AR: I was, yes.
MA: Any sort of general thoughts, lasting thoughts, ideas for moving forward? How did it go the transition to virtual learning?
AR: Well, it made me realize just how much I love teaching at UNC because I was very sad to leave campus and only see my colleagues over Zoom. But I think we sort of made the best of it. I was teaching a class that we used to call SOCI 290, which is now being rechristened SOCI 302, which is a field work and entrepreneurship class. And my students were doing these very hands-on, sort of sociology meets entrepreneurship research projects. And some, they were working in groups of four, looking at the market for a potential service or product, and then about a quarter of the class actually pivoted and started doing individual research projects looking at the impact of COVID on various populations at UNC. And that ended up being really interesting for them. It was a great way to really learn how to do research in a rapidly changing situation, learned how to pivot and move very quickly with what their project was. And I think that actually ended up being a really valuable learning experience. And it actually informed some of my own research because I’ve launched a project that’s funded by the National Science Foundation, looking at the impact of COVID on workers, specifically in New York City right now.
MA: Fascinating. Well, that’s a good entryway to our discussion about the gig economy in general and the effects of COVID on the gig economy. Can we just start out by defining our terms? And here, I’m going to ask you for a little bit of help. I’m a little confused by all the different terms that I read out there that I think maybe all describe the same thing but maybe I’m wrong. Terms like the platform economy and the shared economy, the gig economy, the collaborative economy. Are those terms synonymous? Or maybe I just should have started by asking if you could give us your definition of what the gig economy is.
AR: Sure. So (…) so I’m going to answer both of your questions. So in many ways, these terms are all synonyms: collaborative economy, sharing economy, gig economy, and they’re certainly used that way in the media, which ends up sort of complicating things. They’re also used that way in many cases by the workers themselves. Individuals who study the gig economy or collaborative economy, tend to differentiate slightly. So the sharing economy or collaborative economy tends to be a sort of larger umbrella term for work that people find or services that they access that may be low costs, that are peer-to-peer, where everything is very short-term, very transactional in many cases. Some of the early sharing economy or collaborative economy services included things like Couchsurfing, where instead of paying for a hotel, you could go and stay on somebody’s couch for free, or Craigslist, where instead of paying for advertising in the local newspaper, you could post online for free. And then, as part of the Great Recession, we saw more and more attention paid to these free or low-cost platforms. And then we also saw many of these platforms transition or we saw other platforms enter the arena, that still call themselves part of the sharing economy, but instead of being focused on free or very low-cost services or products, we see the entry of middlemen. And we see more focus on using workers, outsourcing the risk to the workers, while the middlemen platforms take a cut of the money, they sort of, interject themselves. And so what I focus on is the gig economy. So I’m not as interested in people accessing services for free, or for low cost. But I’m more interested in how individuals start to treat this peer-to-peer network and these websites and platform-mediated jobs, as a source of income and how this source of income is used to either shape their lives or how they turn to it in times of need, like now, and some of the marketing done by the platform’s telling people that this is entrepreneurship for the masses.
JW: Alexandrea, could you just say something about, how many people are we talking about? What percentage of the American labor force could be said to be part of the gig economy? What’s the scope of this economy? How many people are involved in it?
AR: That is a fantastic question, Jonathan. And the true answer is nobody really knows, however, we do know a couple of different things. So we do know that there are numerous estimates that are out there. Chase, some researchers at Chase Bank, looked at deposits into Chase bank accounts. And their most recent numbers suggest that about 5% of Chase Bank holders have some sort, some form of income coming from gig economy platforms. So they’re selling something on eBay, they’re renting through Airbnb, or maybe they’re getting work done, they’re getting tasks completed through TaskRabbit. But we also know that a large number of these workers are pretty underbanked. And so that suggests that maybe they’re not turning to Chase, which is a pretty large bank, for a lot of their banking purposes. Research from the Federal Reserve, the Survey of Household Economic Decision-making, I believe it is, the SHED survey, suggests that about 3 in 10 Americans, on average, obtain some form of work in the gig economy, but they do not limit it to platforms. So they include raking leaves for your neighbor and getting paid, or doing some babysitting on the side as a way to supplement. Some research done by Bankrate has suggested that it’s over 40%, especially among younger groups, like millennials, that are turning to this as the eponymous ‘side hustle’. So we don’t have specific numbers. And part of the challenge of that is because of what the gig economy is itself. You know, this is work that people can sort of turn to and then leave at literally a moment’s notice. Very famously, Uber ran a study years ago, where they defined anyone who had given a ride on their platform in the last six months, as an active driver. I don’t know about you, but if I stopped showing up to UNC for about three weeks [laughter], I might not have a job any longer. I’m not gonna [sic] test that, but for most of us, you know, job is long gone before six months comes by. And yet because it’s so difficult to track what people are doing and why people use the gig economy for different reasons, we end up using counts like, you’ve given, you’ve done work on the platform in the last six months.
JW: Well, and Alexandrea, I can’t help but think that Uber’s willingness to claim, in a sense, workers who might not have driven for them in the past six months is related to the fact that they don’t actually have any responsibility for their workers. So it doesn’t disserve to make it sound like they’re just as sort of big as they are by including categories of people who we wouldn’t normally include as far as the workforce. Am I off base in characterizing it that way?
AR: No, I think you’re exactly right, Jonathan. You know, the phrase ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder;’ I’m sure it’s pretty convenient to include some people who haven’t worked on your platform in the last three months because they might not remember as easily the time somebody puked in their car or the time somebody peed on their car seat and then they had to clean it up. And when I say car seat, I don’t mean a children’s car seat [laughter]. And so yeah, and, you know, these platforms have no obligations to their workers. And that’s really being brought to the forefront right now during the novel coronavirus pandemic, because we have platforms where they’re very much dragging their feet on verifying workers’ income. And so this is even slowing down the ability of workers to claim pandemic unemployment assistance, because they can’t get any proof from the platforms about how much money they were making before.
MA: So you’re just talking about gig workers. And if what I’m understanding here is that there really is no such thing as a typical gig worker. And I’m thinking based on your definition, my daughter who babysits, is part of the gig economy, and my parents who rent a room above their garage on Airbnb, are they part of the gig economy as well?
AR: Yes. So both groups would be part of the gig economy. The difference is, of course, your daughter, unless she’s on care.com, which is a famous app for finding babysitters and nannies, she’s not part of the platform economy. She’s not getting-
MA: That’s helpful.
AR: -work there. But your parents are definitely part of the gig economy. And, you know, this really brings up the issue of sort of the divide within the gig economy. So I’m guessing your parents are probably doing this for just like a little bit of extra spending money or to supplement-
AR: -their retirement? Yeah-
MA: Yes, exactly.
AR: -yeah. So you know, we often think about gig workers as very much sort of down-on-their-luck you know, they’re maybe, they’re the struggling TaskRabbit or struggling Uber driver, but there is very much divide between workers. And so in my book, Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy, I actually divide workers into three main categories: strugglers, strivers, and success stories. And the strugglers are, of course, those individuals who are struggling in the sharing economy. They’ve turned to it in a moment of desperation, it is an occupation of last resort for them. They, in many cases, had a period, a long period of unemployment. They were underemployed. Maybe they were undocumented or something happens and they had to turn to gig work. And at the other extreme are the success stories and these are the people who have the lives that many of us would love to have. They are running their businesses and many of them do have businesses, many of them have incorporated. They are running these businesses from beaches and bars. They are making six-figure salaries from their gig economy work. And then we have the strivers and these are the people who are turning to gig work as a way to get some additional money. They are using it to maybe supplement a salary that has stagnated or to help pay off their student loans or maybe their retirement savings took a hit in the Great Recession or whatever this COVID depression is, and they’ve turned to gig work to supplement. And so your parents probably fit into either the strivers or the success stories.
MA: Right. Well, if we could talk a little bit, I suppose that it’s the strugglers and the strivers that we’ll be talking about here. It seems to me, or at least the way that I always thought about people, and I’m thinking like, for example, Uber drivers here, people who drive for and deliver for Amazon Prime, or now Instacart more and more, thinking about the the vulnerability of people who participate in the gig economy. Could you talk a little bit maybe about the ways in which these workers were vulnerable pre-COVID? And then certainly there must be some profound changes with regards to the vulnerabilities that they face since the COVID pandemic?
AR: Yes. So one issue that occurs with the gig economy is that we see this outsourcing of risk and liability. And this is part of a larger casualization of labor in the United States and even worldwide. And so, you know, normally you would expect your employer to kind of take on the risk of a slow period, and maybe you would get laid off, but it would take some time for that to kind of trickle from the employer down to the worker. But now we see that in the gig economy, workers are assuming that risk of slow periods. So if there are no rides available, no one is requesting to take an Uber, you as the Uber driver are experiencing that loss of income immediately. Uber will experience a loss of income but they’re not assuming any of the daily costs of operations. They’re not paying for the car, they’re not paying for the insurance, they’re not paying for the gas, they haven’t sort of put all of their eggs in one basket with counting on that particular worker. We also see that workers very much have to become their own sort of regulatory agencies. So these workers are independent contractors, in most cases, that means they do not receive any type of social safety net. They normally do not receive access to unemployment, they don’t get social security contributions, they do not qualify for workers’ comp, there’s no paid sick leave, paid time off. They’re just on their own. And so what happens is that workers have to really evaluate a perspective task or perspective gig and determine if it’s going to be a safe situation. So one of the things that I’ve brought up in Hustle and Gig is that there are workers who, you know, accept a task very quickly because time is very much of the essence here. If you don’t accept something quickly, somebody else will accept it and you will miss out on that income opportunity. And then workers might find themselves in really questionable situations. And some of those risks include physical risks. So you might get injured on the job, you might be exposed to dangerous chemicals, you might end up slipping, tripping, and needing surgery as in the case of one of the workers I interviewed. You might also find yourself just in a questionable situation in terms of being sexually uncomfortable. So you might have your client propositioning you, like outright propositioning you, and then you have to sort of delicately walk out of that situation. And so workers have to very much evaluate the type of work that they’re taking on and then decide, in just a matter of seconds, if that job is going to be safe or not.
JW: Alexandrea, I want to follow up on that because the precarity that you’re talking about has obviously been magnified many fold with COVID, delivery workers who are being exposed in the ways they are by the virus. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times writer, has labeled those workers who we’re all calling now essential workers. I’ve seen some people refer to them as, quote, household heroes. She calls them sacrificial workers, because they are not able to shelter-in-place, work-from-home, and so forth and so on. And so my question is, can you talk a little bit about that in terms of COVID, specifically? And can you also talk about the, let’s say, racial dimensions of this kind of precarious work? What percentage of these precarious workers are minorities? And how does that figure into our understanding of the gig economy more broadly?
AR: Oh, so this is gonna [sic] be a happy conversation [laughter]. Oh, alright [laughter]. That is sarcasm. Um (…) yeah. So COVID is really bringing the precarity of these workers very much to the forefront. Some of the workers, so right now my project is, it’s a National Science Foundation funded rapid grant to study the impact of COVID on workers in New York City and I’m looking at gig workers and then precarious workers. So some of the individuals who are working in drug stores, grocery stores, individuals who have jobs that are typically not particularly well paid, usually offer few benefits, are relatively instable, not particularly secure, and few opportunities for advancement. And COVID has very much brought all of the challenges of that work to the forefront. A number of workers had actually had, they were in relatively precarious work before, they were maybe working as independent contractors or they had low-wage work, and then when that work dried up, in some cases, they turned to gig economy work because we’ve seen such extreme delays with the unemployment insurance in New York and in other parts of the US, that they felt like there was no other option. That they couldn’t trust that money was coming. They had no idea when money was coming from the government. And so they were putting themselves at risk. I’ve had workers telling me that this is the only way that they can keep a roof over their head is to go and do gig work, start doing food delivery for DoorDash, or Uber Eats. And they’re very much interacting with other delivery workers. They’re going into restaurants, they are dropping food off for their customers. And many of these platforms of course, now have remote drop-off, so you don’t have to actually interact with the person, you don’t have to hand them the food but it’s something that customers have to opt into. And so in some cases, people are concerned that they’re food will get stolen and they’re refusing to do the remote drop-off and they still want somebody to give them the food personally. One young man told me about getting tipped, which was great, but the person threw the money on the floor, rather than give it to him. And he had the incredibly demeaning experience of having to sort of scuttle around on his hands and knees picking up the money that they threw on the ground to tip him. Yeah, there are also a number of workers who were already doing gig work and this has really just brought the physical risks of this work to the forefront for them. So in some cases, platforms have told people that they need to wear masks, especially in recent weeks, but they haven’t necessarily provided masks. And one platform actually told workers that they would sell them masks and hand sanitizer for $10, which many of the workers were pretty appalled by because they’re out on the frontlines. We also see very much this is bringing, it’s really bringing to light the larger issues of inequality in our society. You know, we have workers who are doing Prime Now deliveries and food deliveries, and they’re delivering food and toilet paper and groceries to their upper-class, shelter-at-home colleagues who are not leaving their homes. And so we are seeing that some of these essential workers might end up being sacrificial, so that other people can stay safe and stay at home. And the sort of other kind of interesting thing that’s coming up is when I asked these workers about being an essential worker, many of them are actually kind of angry by that term. And they’re angry because in many cases, if they were doing gig work previously, it was invisible work. They were not ever acknowledged, they were not seen as important, and now they’re being hailed in TV commercials. And they feel like it’s a little bit of a slap in the face for them.
Going to the racial issue, you know, it’s hard to get, again, specific information about gig workers. But we do know from tracking cell phone data, that lower income workers and minority workers in many cases, have not had strong savings built-up because of a number of different factors, discrimination, lower wages to begin with, more precarious employment to begin with. And so they’re more likely to be out on the street working because they don’t have much of a safety net. And so I think that is probably going to contribute to the outsized impact of COVID-19 on minority communities which we’re already seeing.[musical interlude]
JW: You’re listening to “COVID Conversations.” Today we’re talking with Alexandrea Ravenelle, a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today’s conversation, we’re talking with Alexandrea, about the gig economy in the age of the COVID pandemic. And now back to our conversation with Alexandrea.[musical interlude]
MA: Alexandrea, so you’re sort of joking there and saying, oh so this is going to be a happy story, a happy conversation [laughter]. Is there any reason to think that this might end up, I mean, I don’t like you know, that that line, let’s look on the bright side of COVID. But did you see potentially any positive outcomes coming out of this? Is there any reason to think that we as a society are going to value people who work in the gig economy more coming, you know, on the backside of COVID? Where there, will, is there any reason to think that perhaps wages will go up or there will be a better safety net or health benefits? Is there any reason for any optimism there?
AR: That is a good question. Um, so the workers that I’m interviewing feel like, you know, they would love it if they were considered to be like important workers going forward, but they don’t think that’s going to happen. They think that people will quickly forget when all of this is over, if this is ever over. But I think one thing that we are seeing is that for one of the first times, you know, well, actually we’ve done stimulus checks in the past, right. But workers, for many of them, that stimulus check was really helpful and really important. And I think we’re starting to see more attention paid to things like the necessity for everyone to have some form of income, especially when something like this is going on. I think we’re also seeing a lot more attention paid to making sure that people have access to health insurance. You know, they’ve changed some of the deadlines. They’ve opened up some things. A large number of the workers that I’ve spoken to have been able to get on food stamps, they’ve been able to get on Medicaid. So I think that has definitely changed. We’ve seen a number of people in our sample that have started talking about how useful they think it is to have these governmental programs and how important they are for them and what a game changer it has been. I don’t think that the situation with workers is necessarily going to improve because we are looking at about 15% unemployment. And although many of those workers think that they’ve been furloughed temporarily, they are optimistic that they’ll go back to the same job, the truth is that we don’t know that that’s going to happen. You know, there are lots of small businesses out there that probably are not going to survive this, especially restaurants, probably even some bars, a lot of like smaller service oriented businesses. There is one (…) and again, I also hesitate to refer to it as like a silver lining. But there is one thing that I’ve seen that has been really intriguing and that’s, so with the pandemic unemployment assistance of about $600 a week on top of the standard unemployment. Some of the workers that I’ve interviewed are actually making more now than they were making before. And there’s one young man that I spoke to who has a college degree, he was working at an appetizing shop here in New York, which is a shop that sells like bagels and lox and fish. And he was able to make twice as much money under unemployment or he’s making twice as much money right now under unemployment than he was making previously. And he described his job previously as dead-end, he wanted to get out of it. He wanted to go and use his degree and really create a career, but he wasn’t certain how to do that. He felt like he didn’t have the time to do that. He couldn’t afford to do that. And now, because he’s not working and he has a considerable, for him a considerable amount of money coming in, he’s actually able to develop a safety net for himself. He’s getting a savings for the first time ever in his life. He can, finally feels financially secure. And because there are all these free classes online right now he’s training himself in website development, and is hoping to relaunch himself with a new career when this pandemic is over. And we’re starting to hear from other people that, you know, having that unemployment money, if they’re able to access it, is actually giving them the opportunity to really kind of reevaluate their careers and maybe make a better life, a more secure and stable life for themselves going forward.
JW: That is a rare, encouraging note, and it’s, in the circumstances, and it’s nice to hear.
AR: Yeah. I’m hoping I find a couple more of them because that feels like a good article possibility.
JW: Alexandrea, can you talk a little more generally about the future of work? The trends, you see, both broadly and as you think they might be influenced by, accelerated by the pandemic?
AR: Sure. So I think in terms of the pandemic, one of the big changes we’re going to see is in terms of how much of work occurs face-to-face. You know, one thing the pandemic has really brought to the forefront is just how arbitrary some of our policies are. So there are some companies that previously said, Oh, you cannot work from home. And guess what, now almost all their workers are working from home and the world has not actually ended. Except for all the people that can’t work for [sic] home.
JW: Alexandrea, I just want to add here very quickly, a handful of friends of mine who run small businesses, have all reported that having their workers work from home has not appreciably changed productivity and it’s really sort of just opened the door to the possibility that that might become much more part of their business model, even in the future.
AR: Yes. And I think that is something we’re going to start to see. We’re going to see much more focus on people working from home. I think that we’ll see changes, you know [laughter] (…) I’ve joked that one of the reasons I went into academia is that I couldn’t deal with the open office plans that were in vogue-
MA: That’s no joke [laughter].
AR: And in academia, I have a gorgeous office. Well, it will be gorgeous when I’m done moving into it officially. But you know, now we see many companies are putting up essentially cubicles again, and going back to closed off office spaces because people really don’t want to be in that open office floor plan anymore. There was actually just an article in The New York Times talking about the implications for Manhattan real estate if nobody goes back to their offices, or at least not en masse. That said, I think for a lot of us we are beginning to almost miss our offices. I actually just posted on Twitter, I miss offices because, yes, it is nice to get to work from home. But when you’re working from home and your children are also home and you’re going on two months, I miss offices.
JW: And I really like my colleagues. I miss I miss seeing them every day. It’s definitely a loss.
AR: Yeah, yeah, it definitely is. I think it’s maybe better if you don’t like the people you work with. And then you’re like, yes, work from home. Um, but yeah, so I think we’re going to see some changes in terms of how often people are going into offices. I think we’ll see changes in terms of how offices are designed. We will probably see the end to desk sharing. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to things like WeWorks and those co-working spaces. Will people feel comfortable going back to a space that markets itself as being open to random people interacting in random ways? To the larger issue of the future of work, I think we are going to see much more movement towards work that is gig based, where jobs are subdivided, where work is accessed via platforms. And we’ll start to see an even bigger divide between these good jobs and these bad jobs. You know, before COVID struck, and actually, I’m still working on it a bit on the side, I have a project looking at high-status gig workers, sort of McKinsey meets the gig economy. And many of those workers had what we would consider to be good jobs, what my colleague at UNC, Arne Kalleberg, would call good jobs. You know, these were stable jobs, good benefits, in management consulting, in strategy. And then these workers due to various sort of personnel issues or personal issues, ended up moving off of those stable jobs and into gig work. And they’re still experiencing a lot of the vulnerability of the Uber drivers and the TaskRabbits. And so we’ve seen what was very consistently a good job, when it moves over into gig work, becomes a very questionable job and a very, very much a job that’s unstable, insecure, and that brings a lot of risk into the workers. And I think we’ll start to see even more work go like that. And I think that, especially as we’re looking at about 15% unemployment, people will possibly be so desperate for work, that they will turn to those gig based jobs and they’ll take really questionable situations, out of desperation.
MA: I would imagine the cutting back on business trips, maybe the end of academic conferences, at least for a little while. This all seems like a thing of the past for a while. Alexandrea, could you offer any, I think it’s the historian in me who wants to ask this question, some historical perspective here? Are there moments in our nation’s history, let’s say, I mean, you know, we can go all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. And obviously, the nature of work profoundly changed then. But do you see parallels between our current moment and transformations within our, the culture of our, labor culture in the United States in the last hundred years or so? Do you see parallels between now and the Great Depression, for example?
AR: Yes, I absolutely do. So one of the things that I say in Hustle and Gig is that the gig economy is very much a movement forward to the past. You know, we talk about this technology, and it’s new and it’s novel, but in many cases, it’s really just a return to the early Industrial Age, before we had many of the workplace protections, at least for W-2 employees, that we now take for granted. You know, I’m talking to you right now from East 14th Street. I can look out my window and see a tenement where one of the survivors from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire lived. And, and I get goosebumps every time I mentioned this, but you know, that Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which happened a little bit more than 100 years ago, really brought to the forefront, the risks experienced by workers in the early industrial age and was transformative in terms of providing protections to workers, everything from making sure that we had buckets to put out fires that sprung up to looking at elevator access. Making sure that there were ways for people [sic] escape, even things like having on-site bathrooms and limiting the number of hours that people were working, all came out of things like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. One of the images that came to mind so much when I was doing my research in Hustle and Gig and still comes to mind today as I’m interviewing workers in this time of COVID, is this image from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where the workers are standing outside the gates to the slaughterhouse clamoring, begging for the jobs. And the owner of the factory, the manager comes out and picks a couple of people and they go in, and then eventually they get worn down by the system and they are simply just cogs and they even get injured on the job. And then they go out and they bring in the next one. And so that’s what we see. You know, even right now, in this time of social distancing, we see people signing up to do things like Instacart and food delivery, because they need the money, because we don’t have a strong system of supports for our workers and for our families in the US.
MA: It’s interesting how you turn to literature. For me it’s Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and thinking about the Joads, you know, putting peaches into a bucket and getting paid by the barrel. It’s the exact same sort of thing.
JW: You know, it’s interesting Alexandrea, because you describe that this is a return to the past. But one difference I feel like is a kind of ideological one where the way this economy is characterized now, it’s as if it’s a liberating one. It’s one where everybody’s an entrepreneur who can set their own schedule and have full self-determination and agency in their work. And so I’m struck by how much these very problematic working conditions that you described for so many workers have been repackaged in such a positive rhetoric.
AR: Yeah, so it’s funny. So I teach in the Shuford Program for Entrepreneurship at UNC, and I’m considered to be an entrepreneurship scholar. And I ask gig workers about being entrepreneurs and so many of them just start laughing. I mean, you would have thought that I’d suddenly gotten the HBO comedy special that I’m always telling my students will be in my future. They just crack up and they’re like, no, I’m not an entrepreneur. I didn’t create this. This is just a part time job for me where I don’t have any protections or benefits. The only exception, interestingly, are those individuals who are the success stories. And these are the people who have high levels of skill and capital. And they, they do consider themselves to be entrepreneurs. Because they’ve, in many cases, incorporated businesses, they’ve started hiring people and they’re just in a better situation financially. But yeah, we definitely see that the platform’s market this as entrepreneurship for the workers, even in the face of the fact that, you know, most entrepreneurs, although there is an element of taking on risk, they have a little bit more control. And meanwhile, these platforms can deactivate workers for really any reason whatsoever. And on a moment’s notice, you know, in Hustle and Gig, there’s a man who had been doing TaskRabbit and he was doing actually pretty well on it. He had turned to it after a period, a long period of unemployment. He’d already started pretty much draining his IRA and his 401k. He was in his 50s and he did a month of TaskRabbit, it was successful, and then he got deactivated and he couldn’t figure out why. And I’ve done follow up interviews with some of the workers in Hustle and Gig and it turned out that he was rude on the phone with the call center rep for TaskRabbit. And so, as vindication, they deactivated him and he lost yet another source of income and-
JW: Well, and even just the term you’re using deactivated sounds like you’re taking a machine offline.
AR: But interesting, so I use deactivated but what the platform’s often use is this really fantastically dystopian phrase of ‘removed from the community’ [laughter]. So it’s like you’re being banished from some like Amish community [laughter], even though they also very famously tend to stifle any type of community from workers because they don’t want the workers to share notes and then start organizing and get some rights and protections.
MA: Alexandrea speaking of terminology, this might be a silly and naive question, but was the term gig economy originally used in a pejorative way? Was it a critique of the system?
AR: Yes, and (…) no. So there’s a little bit of like a divide on this, of course. So partly it comes out of gigs of, you know, we think about musicians. Oh, you know, here’s my gig, here’s my music opportunity. And then at the same time, this idea that was very much short-term work, that, you know, it might only last a couple of hours. And so in that aspect, it is kind of like, well it’s not like ‘real work’ in the sense, which is actually something that a lot of my workers will talk about, they’ll be like, well, this isn’t a real job, like a real job is a stable job, a real job as a dependable source of income.
MA: Right. No, it’s real work. That’s for sure.
JW: Well, Alexandrea, this has been a fascinating discussion. We’re so glad you could join us today and enlighten us on the gig economy in the age of COVID and beyond. So, thank you again, so much for being with us.
MA: Thank you, Alexandrea.
AR: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was great to see some friendly faces.
JW: This has been another edition of “COVID Conversations,” brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Special thanks to Dean Terry Rhodes, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to Senior Associate Dean Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, whose brainchild “COVID Conversations” was, to Kristen Chavez and Geneva Collins in the Office of Communications in the College of Arts and Sciences, and to Matthew Belskie and our producer extraordinaire, Klaus Mayr, for making all of this possible and we will see you next time.
Transcript edited by Kelsey Eaker.