From Cubicles to Cars

An analysis of the ‘gig economy’ post COVID-19 through student worker perspectives

by Lily Ferguson / Garnet & Black

Throughout the streets of Columbia and countless other cities across the United States, there is business happening in cars. People are clamoring out of a bar, perhaps after a few drinks too many, into one of these cars to take them safely back home. A young parent, exhausted from their day job, has forgotten to go to Food Lion and calls one of these cars to do it for them. A server at a restaurant passes bags to a fleet of drivers, who will deliver them to all corners of the city. Ride-share apps like Uber. Personal shopping apps like Instacart. Delivery services like DoorDash. This is the gig economy, and it is the secret pulse of the city. 

The gig economy is defined by a series of independent contractors (or freelancers) who retain autonomy over their hours, often utilizing a digital platform like an app or a website. According to Picked, a talent acquisition company and software tool, this can include vehicle-based gigs (which largely constitute the mainstream of the industry) and Airbnb hosting. The gig economy can even extrapolate outwards to include any freelance position like seasonal employment or consulting. 

While this form of work has been growing at a steady pace since the introduction of food delivery/ride-share/personal shopper applications, it received a large influx of contributors when COVID-19 upended the structure of the traditional workplace. There are estimates that around 35% of the United States workforce was represented in the gig economy in 2020, according to Forbes. Evidently, the sector will likely be valued at approximately $455 billion globally. It seems adaptability is becoming more profitable. Workers are developing patchwork portfolios instead of linear ones.

It is no mistake that the COVID-19 pandemic greatly accelerated the widespread adoption of gig work. As the pandemic became an impediment for traditional workers with mass layoffs and furloughs, many adults, especially working women, took to the gig economy to care for their families, according to Forbes. However, while many blame the rise of the gig economy solely on the pandemic, this form of labor had been growing in popularity before it. 

Technology advancing at exponential speeds partnered with the gradual erosion of the loyalty transaction between worker and institution have both set the stage for the gig economy’s arrival. The evolution seems logical. In American culture, which is focused on choice and personalization, it makes sense that even our work would start to accommodate personal preference. Within the gig economy, one is able to customize their own work schedule, an attribute of labor that has been rigid and unmoving for ages. This flexibility and ease prime college students, known for their unpredictable schedules and perpetual need for cash, for engagement in the gig economy.

Celine Robinson, a 22-year-old student in Aircraft Maintenance Technology at Trident Tech, has been a consistent driver for Instacart. According to the Pew Research Center, workers in her age group, 18-29 years old, are the largest demographic within the gig economy, likely due to their digital literacy, need for work and ability to drive. Robinson has an atypical relationship with the gig economy, using it to pay nearly all of her expenses. 

“A lot of people are using [gig work] as a transitionary tool into another stable W-2 sort of job, but not a lot of people use it as a main form of income," Robinson said. Robinson relishes in the freedom and autonomy that the work allows for her, saying “it puts the control back into your hands. You decide where you want to drive, where you want to stake out.” 

Having experimented with a variety of gig apps, Robinson continues to return to Instacart. She says this is because, “they take people’s feedback and integrate it into the app,” through features such as promotions that alert drivers when it is an apt time to work and the ability to hide orders that one is denying. While it might seem counterintuitive to refuse orders, Robinson emphasizes that she doesn’t accept orders less than three dollars a mile. 

“It’s knowing your worth and knowing what your time is worth,” Robinson said. Utilizing self-imposed strategies to maximize her time working, such as deliberately denying small batches and grabbing large ones quickly, she is able to generate substantial sums quickly. “There was a Saturday where I made $250 in nine hours,” Robinson said. “I’m claiming, before expense deductions, $6,500 of Instacart income this year.” 

Eleanor Jessen, a speech and communication major who is taking a gap year, began driving for DoorDash in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic was in full swing. Though she had already found employment at a group home for autistic children, she didn’t feel that she was making enough money. So, she took to DoorDash. 

“Sometimes, you need two new tires or you want to go out with your boyfriend for a night, so you go DoorDashing to make a little extra,” Jessen said. She emphasizes that while the supplemental income has certainly been helpful, the work is often unrewarding and unpredictable. 

“I think a bit of a misconception about DoorDash is that you are able to dash any time, and that’s absolutely not true. You are able to dash when it is busy enough to dash,” Jessen said. These universal busy times flow both ways. While customer traffic increases, competition on the app does as well, making it harder to obtain larger orders for larger payouts. And if there is ever an issue with payment or access, the chain of command is vague and largely unestablished. 

“When you talk to them on the phone, if you're upset, if something’s gone wrong, they’ll say they care but at the same time, I don’t expect them to care that much. They don’t know me. They’re not my boss. They don’t know how I’ve worked. They see my stats,” Jessen said. The unpredictability of the workflow is also often found within the companies themselves. With little to no warning, “they can let you know policy changes whenever and deactivate you whenever they want,” Jessen said.  

Robinson concurs and cites another difficulty of the industry being the self-employment tax that one must pay when working as an independent contractor, a whopping 15.3%. 

“Gig work, tax-wise, sometimes is so expensive that you can’t afford to do it trying to make full-time money,” Robinson said. “If you have to pick between paying rent this month or putting money away for the taxes you’re going to pay in eight months, especially as a young independent student, what are you going to do?” 

The job is often thankless and isolating, and the poor pay and high taxes certainly don’t ease the situation. Jessen shares that, “you’ll find videos or TikToks of Dashers crying because they’re just making these horrible payouts, and I feel for them. And, I feel very strongly that if you’re not being paid under the table and you have to pay taxes on something, I think you should be getting minimum wage.”

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Labor seems to have heard these concerns. In 2022, the Department proposed a revision to its policy regarding independent contractors under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If adopted, companies would be forced to supply gig workers with rights and benefits equivalent to normal employees: health insurance, social security contributions and minimum wage. Jessen is excited by the prospect, citing that full-time gig workers especially, “deserve to be paid a minimum wage, and tips should be on top of it.” 

“I want a guaranteed hourly wage,” Robinson said. “I know it sounds ironic because that’s why you do gig work, you’re willing to gamble that.” She remains hopeful that the revision will be passed and is following the Department of Labor closely. “It’s such a new concept that this many people are now doing so many types of contracting jobs, and some of us literally making all of our money from multiple contracting jobs. It’s this new territory that they’re having to tread lightly in.” 

The gig economy is largely still a Wild West on the economic front, the first marked change towards labor personalization and arguably, a shift toward employee autonomy. Robinson emphasizes that though she encourages everyone to give the industry a try, she, “would not suggest this to people who are not willing to teach themselves things, who don’t have that sort of DIY spirit. This is not an industry for people who are easily scared off by uncomfortable situations.” Jessen recommends the work to, “someone who wants a couple bucks here and there” and hopes that companies will implement interior change and engage with the faceless masses that fill their companies’ coffers. “That’s what every worker wants, their boss to listen to them more,” Robinson said. 

Though the noticeable increase in app traffic during the pandemic has died down, the gig economy shows no signs of going anywhere. And while the young industry certainly has issues to iron out, interior reform and governmental regulation look to be promising solutions to make the work more viable than it already is. Who’s to say where this industry will lead us? Perhaps the future of labor lies in your pocket.