Driving ‘gigs’ offer convenience to customers, workers

March 24, 2019
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David Smith delivers an order for Grubhub on March 12 in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — Smartphone apps have opened up an entire new world to those who hold them by changing the way people engage with their surroundings. Now, anyone with a smartphone can request a ride home or order delivery food with a touch of the screen.

Or, they can choose to be summoned to perform these services through apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Grubhub.

These app-based jobs are part of the “gig economy,” which Google’s dictionary defines as “a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.” The apps advertise these jobs as a way to take control of one’s life by working for oneself, the most attractive perk being a flexible schedule.

Gig economy jobs also include selling handmade products on Etsy and freelancing on sites like Fiverr and Upwork. These jobs can be done from anywhere and are not dependent on the service being available for a certain area.

Location-specific gigs first came to Huntington as Airbnb’s popularity began growing in 2014 and 2015. In July of 2016, Uber launched its ride hailing service in the area after a law went into effect that allowed the services to operate in West Virginia. Industry competitor Lyft followed suit in 2017.

In 2018, Huntington welcomed three new digital delivery service apps: Grubhub, Doordash and Instacart. Grubhub and Doordash make it possible to have just about anything from a local restaurant’s menu delivered straight to your door, while Instacart makes grocery shopping possible without stepping out of the house.

Huntington resident Regan Martinez, 25, frequently uses both Uber and Grubhub. She said the services’ convenience has changed the way she engages living in the city, allowing her to either stay in or go out at times she either would not want to or would not be able to. She said giving people greater access to the city they live in can only be a good thing.

“These service apps have the potential to remove barriers to things people need or simply want,” Martinez said. “I’ve known folks to Uber to the grocery store or Grubhub Sunday brunch.”

These new delivery apps give restaurants and grocery stores the opportunity to offer expanded services to their customers and bring in job opportunities. What cost is it, though, to those who work with the services?

Tommy, JD and Chase all work gig jobs for varying reasons. This article identifies the workers by first name only for their protection.

Tommy, 36, started out with gig economy jobs when Uber first came to Huntington, and was one of the company’s first drivers in the area. He has since moved exclusively to Grubhub after the market became over-saturated with drivers and not enough rides were available to be lucrative. Tommy uses Grubhub on his time off from his fulltime job at a call center to earn extra cash.

Tommy runs a Facebook group for Huntington delivery drivers so they can network and share their experiences with one another.

“If someone has a question about something, someone in the group may know the answer,” Tommy said.

JD, 51, flocked to the gig economy after a career in retail. He also said the flexibility and opportunity to work for himself attracted him to gig-based work.

“After all the years of working retail... I have always had the feeling in the back of my head that driving around and (delivering) things was my true nature in life,” JD said.

Chase is a 35-year-old stay-at-home dad who drives for Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, Doordash and Instacart in Charleston. He chose these jobs because he said they are the only opportunities he has to continue taking care of his daughter while working due to their flexibility.

“These are basically the only things that pay out decently and let me stay home with my daughter during the day,” Chase said. “They are flexible enough that I can always be working. These ghouls were there to take advantage of my need to shelter my family when we were most vulnerable.”

Can one survive on gigs alone?

All three drivers said yes, it is possible to make a living with just driving gigs — that is, if you’re willing to put in the work and work through the many challenges of navigating the gig system.

JD said he reported making anywhere from $800 to $1,000 a week with Grubhub with about 40 hours of food delivery. For Uber and Lyft, however, he said he could work upwards of 80 hours a week and not even make $400 due to too many drivers on the roads, which is good for customers waiting for rides but bad for drivers.

“The problem is Uber and Lyft are completely over-saturated,” JD said. “Restaurant delivery is basically limited to how many people they will allow out on the road.” This is mainly why Tommy decided to ditch driving for Uber and Lyft for Grubhub.

“Sometimes there isn’t enough work due to the large number of people who sign up to do gig-economy work,” Tommy said. “Anyone who has a car, valid driver’s license and clean background can do it.”

Chase said the key to making a living in the gig-economy grind is to diversify and identify the best ways to maximize income with each service, for example, operating within times where Uber or Lyft are charging surge prices, which occur when there is a large quantity of ride requests coming in from an area.

Other challenges gig workers face is managing their finances. These are independent contractor jobs, which means no taxes are collected on income by the companies, and the workers are left responsible for keeping track and paying their taxes themselves.

“Gig life is not for everyone because if you do not know how to handle your finances you will definitely be hurting at the end of the year when the taxman comes to collect,” JD said. “If you do not log your miles and if you do not hold back a percentage of what you’re making then you are definitely going to fail at this job.”

Martinez said though these services are generally good for Huntington, the way workers are treated should always affect the way consumers choose to spend their money, and that customers should use scrutiny.

“It encourages companies to consider the employees who make their business possible and what kind of jobs are available to members of our community,” Martinez said.

At the end of the day, the gig economy is yet another service-based industry employing the citizens of Huntington and changing the way residents navigate their daily lives, bringing the area up-to-par with standard services offered in bigger cities.

Follow reporter Megan Osborne on Twitter and Facebook @megosborneHD.