L.A.'s Gig Economy Can Turn Your Phone Into Your Boss, But Will It Cost You Your Rights?
Jerry Washington was an 18-year veteran of the Red Cross before a 2012 layoff led to his current turn as an Uber driver.
Photo by Julie Walmsley
Before David Nolan drove for Uber and walked dogs for Wag!, he'd trail workers' compensation claimants as a private investigator for companies such as FedEx, to make sure someone really had trouble using her right arm all day. Soon, he says, he'll add notary public to his income stream.
The 26-year-old Long Beach resident, who got his first job at a racetrack at 18, says the lifers there unknowingly motivated him to diversify.
"I always heard old people say, 'If I didn't have this job, I don't know what I'd do.' I didn't want to be like that," the microlaborer explained, following up via text message with an noncaptioned video of himself doing a kind of happy dance in a hotel elevator.
With nearly every personal service offered via smartphone application in Los Angeles, the David Nolans of the world can upcycle their roll-with-it personalities into daily gigs, if not permanent employment with a brick-and-mortar company.
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If you don't want to drive for Uber, Lyft or Sidecar, you can walk dogs for Wag!, deliver takeout for DoorDash, pick up and drop off laundry for Washio or clean a house, help someone move, be a personal assistant for the day or perform odd jobs through TaskRabbit.
The smartphone microlaborers are everywhere in Angelenos' daily lives, but they're hidden, too, creating a fuzzy element in the region's labor economy.
Research on the long-term impact of service apps driving the growth of microlabor and gig jobs has centered mostly on its effect on the industries — not the workers.
UC Davis professor Martin Kenney calls it the "platform economy" and predicts an increasingly unstable labor market, because the workers don't share a physical space, making it difficult for them to organize or pursue quality-of-life issues that arise on any job.
"Even baristas at Starbucks are working next to one another, so they can talk," Kenney says.
The size of the platform economy's workforce is hard to peg, as is their level of pay and the working conditions they're accepting. They are composed of career experimenters like Nolan, part-time students, performers between auditions, college graduates in a slack job market and so-called discouraged workers.
They fall into multiple categories tracked by the federal Bureau Labor of Statistics. There's no box for the gig-by-gig platform economy.
What we do know is that its workers maintain at least one income stream by constantly monitoring the service-app landscape. Once accustomed to using their phone as their "employer," they try to track the advantages and disadvantages of each gig via word-of-mouth.
Santa Monica resident Kate Eberhard, 29, says it's fun driving for Lyft, using her customers as leads to new adventures. She moved to L.A. in 2010 to work in production and was too busy to really see the city until she started driving for Lyft last fall. She's provided 1,600 rides since.
"Most people like to hit a number. I like to live in between [rides]," Eberhard says at her local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. If she has an afternoon ride to Malibu, she'll watch the sunset. One recent rush-hour ride from downtown to Hermosa Beach landed her near a boat tour. She went whale-watching while others suffered the 405.
This past New Year's Eve in West Hollywood, she outfitted her backseat with a mini karaoke machine so she could join the party, but it backfired a bit: "They wouldn't get out until their song was over!"
Some of her rides tell her their worries and goals, and a few times she's role-played a hiring manager while delivering a nervous applicant to a job interview. "I feel like we're the new bartenders. You just listen," she says. "And sometimes, you learn something yourself."
Yet every app has workers who are unhappy with aspects of the company's setup. Most issue their complaints anonymously, for fear of retaliation.
Washio's pickup and delivery drivers, each assigned the job title Ninja by the company, uniformly oppose the unpaid pockets of time tacked on their shifts, according to one Ninja who spoke anonymously.
Calls by L.A. Weekly to the app companies, aside from Washio, were not returned. Washio responded by saying it had no comment.
The Ninjas meet one another when they pick up and deliver loads of laundry to a "Drop Shop" at two locations in L.A. The locations give Washio's Ninjas a chance to share notes about their unseen bosses, a more personal version of the Facebook and Meetup groups where Uber and Lyft drivers trade job stories and woes.
"The biggest thing is money," the source says, because Washio's pay has fallen off a cliff since 2013 — not to mention the work they're allegedly made to do for free.
According to the source, "shift preparation and completion tasks" at the two Washio Drop Shops take about 45 minutes — and this is deemed off-the-clock by Washio's owners.
After the company's 2013 founding, Ninjas were paid $18 per hour. Then Washio instituted a per-stop payment of $7.10, with a $2.01 subsidized tip.
But now the per-stop payment is just $5.09, with the rest expected to be made up by tips from customers. If a customer in L.A. forgoes a fair-sized Washio tip, that Ninja loses nearly 30 percent of his or her per-stop income.
Jerry Washington was an 18-year veteran of the Red Cross before a 2012 layoff led to his current turn as an Uber driver in Santa Monica. He leases his Prius wagon as part of an incentive from Uber in which the company co-signed a fixed payment.
Washington figured the monthly payment was about the same amount he saved not buying gas for his Mitsubishi Endeavor. The math seemed good until the Uber app malfunctioned, he says, denying him customers during the peak time in Santa Monica when he would have covered his $235 weekly lease.
According to Washington, Uber does not offer app tech support for drivers on weekends, even though it's the top money-earning time in his area.
He's ironing out the kinks, though, and sticking with it, because he works near home, and he says his self-made schedule is worth it.
In some cases, the apps prevent complete unemployment, helping people get by while searching for something stable. One Westside Wag! walker found the dog-walking service her only real choice after she got her college degree in June. But she enjoys it, and many clients live near her home. She fits in exercise, and loves playing with the dogs.
Still, she had to combine her Wag! income with help from her parents, and her real goal was a steady job. After the 22-year-old landed a retail service position she'd been seeking, she told the Weekly she did not want to be named, explaining, "It took me 5½ weeks to get this job. They could see me talking about a past employer. I don't want to risk anything."
Despite working for mostly amorphous firms that issue workplace and earnings edicts over which their micro-laborers have no power, the anonymous Washio Ninja believes that using one's smartphone as an employer is a good thing overall — mostly because of freedoms that don't exist in a traditional job.
Washio money isn't Lyft or Uber money, but it involves shorter shifts, and some drivers do make decent earnings. Asked how much, the anonymous Ninja responds that she can afford to travel. "The whole app world is a great movement," she says. "These jobs are as crazy as can be — but they do offer that freedom. That is the positive of it all."
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