DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is a lifestyle that, in theory, sounds amazing - be your own boss; set your work schedule. This is why people are drawn to so-called gig work, driving for companies like Uber and Lyft, delivering food or performing onetime tasks.
PJ KENOJAN: My name's PJ Kenojan (ph), and I work for Instacart, Uber and Lyft.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I live in Nashville, and I first started on Lyft.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am using Instacart.
ERICA MEDRANO: My name is Erica Medrano (ph), and I have done Postmates and Lyft.
GREENE: So it's actually unclear how many Americans work in the gig economy. Estimates vary widely, but this kind of work fascinates sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle. And she's written a book called "Hustle And Gig." She was inspired by a story about the company TaskRabbit. Ravenelle tells us this one guy's task was to pick up drugs from a pharmacy. Turns out they were amphetamines, and he was being asked to ship them to China.
ALEXANDREA RAVENELLE: And so he ended up reaching out to TaskRabbit. And after some back-and-forth, they said, well, you should do it anyway because the client is always right.
RAVENELLE: Really, and he decided he wasn't going to do that. He was a college graduate from a very prestigious university. His entire future was ahead of him. Eventually, the woman got back in touch. And he had to do a handoff at a local park and give the large bottle of drugs to some other person.
GREENE: That's crazy.
RAVENELLE: It is crazy. I couldn't believe that someone could be in that vulnerable of a position, and I decided I wanted to know more about what else was going on.
GREENE: Well, let's let's talk through how this economy was conceived. I know you interviewed a lot of people for your book, and we actually called up some people, as well, to hear their voices. And I want to play a bit from Daniel Quinonez (ph). He's 33 years old. He lives in Florida. He drives for Uber, and he remembers what it was like first going to work for Uber.
DANIEL QUINONEZ: With a smartphone, I was able to sit there at home in a real low point in my life and be employed within a matter of hours. I didn't have to get dressed up. I didn't have to stand in line. I was able to just go to work. I'm really grateful that this space exists, but I do want it to improve.
GREENE: So it - that's really what this was all about, right? I mean, it was, you don't have to go to a job interview in a suit or a nice outfit. I mean, you could just become your own boss instantaneously.
RAVENELLE: Well, it meant that you could get work instantaneously, assuming that there was work available on the platform. But he's still controlled by the platform in many ways. So through gamification techniques in order to encourage him to drive at certain times - one of the things we've seen that's very popular is this push towards surge or towards incentives so that if drivers give a certain number of rides over a certain period of time, they'll get additional money. But, you know, that interview, actually, really highlights the position of strugglers in the gig economy - these individuals who are down on their luck or long-term unemployed or going through a really dark time. And, yes, the gig work is there for them. But as he also points out, there needs to be some improvement to it.
GREENE: Is just being able to have some work and make a little money an improvement for someone who is struggling and is just looking for any way to bring in some cash?
RAVENELLE: Yes and no. So it is an improvement in the sense that it can help them to start making some money. In fact, there's an individual I interviewed who was long-term unemployed, and he talks about being depressed and how this actually got him out of the house and making money. And it really improved his life. But the downside is that these jobs have no protections. And so workers can find themselves exposed to dangerous situations that actually leave them worse off than they started.
GREENE: And what about the argument that they know that going into jobs like this, like, that you know that you're going into a type of work where there are none of the standard protections?
RAVENELLE: So workers are told upfront that they're independent contractors. But they're also very much marketed this entrepreneurial ethos that they are their own boss, and they can control their hours, and they have the freedom to determine their own paycheck. So the risks that they encounter - although they might sort of know it intellectually going in, it's very different to encounter these firsthand. You know, I interviewed TaskRabbits who were propositioned on the job. And that's not something you expect is going to happen if you go to clean someone's house.
GREENE: In terms of the experience working in jobs like this, I want to play you another piece of tape. This is a gig worker named Andy Carroll (ph). She's 37 years old. She lives in Chicago, and she works for DoorDash, the food delivery app.
ANDY CARROLL: Like, for me, I was using it as kind of a crutch to get to the next thing. And here I am in a 9-to-5, and I'm still using it to supplement income here and there. But the thing is, like, you know, when you walk up to somebody's door, you know, you get a - barely a tip from most people They don't even look you in the eye. And it really messes with your self-esteem.
GREENE: So interesting because she's someone who has a 9-to-5 job, is using this as supplemental income. But it sounds like it can be demeaning.
RAVENELLE: It is incredibly demeaning. In fact, a number of the workers that I interviewed actually talk about a high level of stigma that goes along with this work. Some of them lie to family and friends and tell them that they are temping rather than admitting that they are working on these platforms.
GREENE: You interviewed dozens of people for the book. Is there one story that sort of stands out that you want to leave us with?
RAVENELLE: One story that, I think, really sticks out was a kitchen-surfing chef - sort of a rent-a-chef that actually went out of business while I was studying it. I don't think I had anything to do with that.
RAVENELLE: But this chef - I call her Roxanne in the book. She was cooking for a family. And she was trying to be very friendly because that's part of working in the gig economy. You have to be friendly and very personable. And then the couple she was cooking for actually propositioned her and invited her to participate in a threesome. And she very, very awkwardly but still gracefully had to try to beg out of the situation. So in a corporate workplace, of course, sexual harassment is still bad. But in the gig economy, workers are often walking into the home of a stranger who, thanks to the apps, is anonymous. You know, workers sometimes think, oh, well, the company has the credit card number. But between burner accounts and profiles that are not completed, workers really have no idea who they're going to be working for.
GREENE: Professor Ravenelle, thanks so much for talking to us.
RAVENELLE: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Alexandrea Ravenelle is the author of "Hustle And Gig." And we should say TaskRabbit gave NPR a statement that reads in part, TaskRabbit expressly forbids the use of our network for any illegal activity. If evidence of illegal activity is found, the tasker or client is immediately removed from the platform and will no longer be able to post or respond to tasks.
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