Gig economy helps people pay down debt, add income
By Brianti Downing
November 30, 2015
Stringing freelance jobs together to pay down debt and make ends meet — it’s called the gig economy. And for hundreds of thousands, it’s becoming a way of life.
Think Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Handy, Instacart — companies have sprung up to carve out niches in existing businesses and to meet the needs of people on the go. It’s unclear how many independent contractors are working in the gig economy, but a recent Fast Company report cited the number of 1099-MISC tax forms that self-employed workers filed with the IRS grew from 82 million in 2010 to 91 million last year.
For a San Francisco handyman and a New York City professional line stander, the gig economy offers added income, more freedom and a variety of daily jobs.
Brian Schrier: “I just thought it would be fun”
Brian Schrier ran a petition management company for 20 years, hiring people to stand in front of grocery stores or shopping centers to ask shoppers to sign petitions to get referendums on the ballot.
That changed for Schrier, when at 45, a friend who was staying at his home introduced him to TaskRabbit, a website that helps people find “Taskers” to aid them with everything from cleaning to furniture assembly.
“He would come home and show me, on his app, everything he’d done and brag about it,” Schrier said. “I just thought it would be fun.”
About a year ago, Schrier shut down his business and became a “Tasker.” Now, he’s making an average of $10,000 a month, mostly doing minor home repairs, such as plumbing, for people in the San Francisco Bay area.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life and never really thought much of it,” Schrier said. “I kind of realized I have a pretty important skill set.”
His favorite task so far was on Halloween 2014. “I was hired to dress up and pass out candy,” Schrier says. “That’s kind of what I really would have wanted to do anyway.”
Setting his own schedule and picking his jobs definitely works for Schrier.
“I’m very proud to say I’m able to pay for my daughter’s tuition this year as well as having the freedom to take off a great deal of time to follow my own interests,” he says.
Gig economy flexibility and controversy
In the gig economy, many independent contractors work for one company that finds them gigs for a service fee. TaskRabbit, for instance, has more than 30,000 Taskers and takes a service fee on every task completed.
It’s a model that’s put quite a few companies on the map, such as Uber and Lyft. Uber’s website says its workforce of drivers grew 400 percent between 2013 and 2014. In January 2015, Uber had 150,000 drivers.
But the gig economy is not without controversy. Classifying tens of thousands of people as independent contractors (and sending out 1099-MISC forms) has been criticized by larger companies that must offer health care and pay Social Security taxes for their employees (who fill out W-2 forms). A September Fortune report found that if Uber moved to classify its drivers as employees, it would cost the company more than $4 billion.
Some people, though, don’t want the traditional 9-to-5. Schrier said the best part about his job is the freedom he has to work on his own schedule and take time off when he feels like it.
TaskRabbit’s Rob Willey, vice president of marketing, says that sense of freedom is a common sentiment among Taskers.
“The primary reason we hear people become Taskers is the flexibility it provides — flexibility in schedule, type of work, etc.,” he wrote in an email. The second most common reason people become Taskers, a March survey found, is the added income.
The gig economy also offers flexibility to the people who pay for these services. Willey says TaskRabbit includes 40 different task categories, as well as giving Taskers the opportunity to create their own. (A quirky one TaskRabbit has seen recently — scuba diving for lost rings.)
Robert Samuel: “I’ve been paying down debt”
The absence of flexibility in a traditional workplace is what drove Robert Samuel, owner of Same Ole Line Dudes, into a job as a professional line sitter, aka professional line stander (but Samuel said he sits whenever he can). Samuel was previously a cellphone representative, but he says he was fired after coming in a few minutes late for several days after a hernia surgery.
Speaking over the phone as he navigates the New York City streets, Samuel stops several times during the interview, noting bicyclists gone awry or apologizing for accidentally bumping into someone. It’s the hustle-and-bustle urban life that keeps Samuel’s team busy.
People don’t even have time to stand in line, especially tourists. “They want to spend more time enjoying the city,” he said.
While people see the sights of the Big Apple, Samuel, or one of the 15 people working for his company, wait in long lines. They mostly stand in line for sample sales, waiting to get the best designer duds at a discounted price for their clients.
Once a year, Same Ole Line Dudes team members can be found sitting outside the Apple store waiting for the release of the newest iPhone. Samuel says he’s always first in line – in September, he waited 48 hours to purchase an iPhone 6s for a client.
Samuel, 40, started his growing business in 2013 — “It’s almost getting to where we have something to do every day!” he says.
It’s also helping pay the bills. “I’ve been paying down debt and making ends meet mostly,” he adds. “New York, especially Manhattan, is very expensive.”
Although Samuel’s workforce has grown, it’s pretty informal — he sends out messages about available jobs and they respond if they can take it. The cost to hire a professional line stander is $25 for the first hour and $10 for every half-hour after that. For line standers, the gig sometimes means several hours standing — or sitting — sometimes in inclement weather.
For some clients, Samuel says, holding a place in line allows the client to be the hero for their families by bringing home that expensive new game.
“If you have a professional job as a doctor or a lawyer, can you really spend time in line for your son’s video game?” Samuel said. “You love your son, but you’re trying to do heart surgery.”