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caption: Orlando Santana is a gig worker in Seattle.
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Orlando Santana is a gig worker in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Delivery gigs are everywhere, but so are the workers that want them

With 60,000 people still waiting for unemployment checks from Washington state, new people are trying gig work for the first time. And the competition is getting fierce.

The sudden popularity of those jobs has some established gig workers fighting to make a living.

O

rlando Santana is a graphic designer and photographer.

He first tried gig work in Seattle after getting laid off from a newspaper three years ago. He found that he loved it.

“During that time, the pay was better than I was making as a graphic designer, so I stuck with it,” he recalled. “And being able to be flexible and set up my own schedule … it was great.”

Before the pandemic, Santana would juggle work on seven different gig apps, doing everything from shopping for groceries to walking dogs. But then the pandemic hit, and temporarily wiped out work on over half of the gig platforms he worked for. He and many other gig workers swarmed the platforms that still had work, like Shipt and DoorDash and Amazon Flex. Instacart alone signed up 300,000 new workers.

Santana said all those new people made it harder for him to earn a living doing things he used to do, like shopping for groceries and delivering them for Instacart.

“I mean, it’s almost impossible to open it up, see where the store is, where the delivery address is… figure out, is the pay worth it for the amount of time I’m going to spend,” he said.

Before the pandemic, he could take the time to figure out which jobs would pay well. But now, he has to snap them up without thinking, because otherwise they disappear.

“It’ll be gone so fast,” he said. “It’s almost like, a frenzy.”

Santana said he ends up doing jobs that he should not have taken, because they earn far less than minimum wage.

“You’re stuck with accepting seven, eight dollars to go do 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of work,” he said.

Instacart’s statistics show that overall, pay has increased for its gig workers during the pandemic. But that’s not true for everybody. Santana says his income has dropped by half.

He says Amazon’s grocery delivery jobs pay a little better, but there’s fierce competition for those jobs too.

A

viona Rodriguez Brown faced a similar problem.

Before the pandemic, gig work supported her career as an artist.

“I worked really hard to save money, while paying off things, while taking care of medical bills, while gig working, while working 18 to 20 hour days,” she recalled.

She managed to climb out of debt and build up a nest egg.

Then, the pandemic reduced the gig work she could find and she could no longer keep up with her bills.

“It was just really disheartening to not have any income, and to just see all of this money wash away as if it had never existed,” she recalled.

Eventually, she moved in with her parents on the Yakama Reservation.

These two gig workers, Santana and Brown, are examples of a larger trend: many gig workers are hurting, even as we hear stories about gig work booming.

Becky House works for a local non-profit credit counseling service called American Financial Solutions. The organization used to counsel a lot of people who relied on income from gig jobs to pay down their debts, but those people aren’t showing up for counseling anymore.

“The difference now is that people don’t have the income to really work on trying to pay down their debts,” House said. “So they’re really really struggling.”

That doesn’t surprise Sage Wilson, of Working Washington, an organization that promotes better pay and benefits for workers. He said many gig apps drive pay down.

“It’s built into the design of some of the platform pay models to silently lower the pay rates when there’s more competition for the job,” he said.

Wilson said gig apps aren’t necessarily bad. They give workers flexibility. But he says when there’s no minimum wage for gig workers, there’s nothing to stop those wages from dropping through the floor. And he said the legacy of those lower wages could hurt people long after the economy recovers.