Times Union: New Yorkers supplement income with gig work during pandemic

This op-ed originally appeared in The Times Union.

Erin Bornt has been a 911 dispatcher for Rensselaer County for 20 years. Though she makes good money and has good benefits, as a single mom, the $60,000 a year wasn’t enough to pay all the bills. She became an Uber driver this year during the pandemic and is grateful that she did when she did.

“The pandemic made it easier to make money because there were fewer drivers wanting to drive,” Bornt said. Bornt works between 10 and 20 hours a week depending on the week, on top of her 40 hours at the 911 dispatch center. In her best weeks, when she’s both driving people and making food deliveries, via Uber Eats, she has made close to $900.

“Honestly I thought [the demand for rides] would lessen because fewer people were going out and about and I suppose it lessened a little bit and the food deliveries did increase, however I was still getting an awful lot of people who were still going to work and going out,” Bornt said. “Unless it was a really bad weather night I was ride to ride pretty much every single time I drove.”

Eighty percent of people working for Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Postmates, and Instacart work less than 15 hours a week, according to new data from the New York Coalition for Independent Work, a group consisting of the five companies. This means workers like Bornt have other jobs or are in school and are supplementing their income with a few extra hours of work, not using the platforms as their sole type of income.

During the pandemic, this work flexibility has been critical. Sixteen percent of drivers in New York said they drove more during the pandemic because they were laid off, furloughed, or had their hours or pay cut because of the pandemic, according to data from Lyft’s Economic Impact report. Doordash saw 1.9 million new “dashers” join across the country from mid-March through September of last year.

“The flexibility and independence of this work are critical to New Yorkers who are looking to make extra income, saving to go to school, starting a small business or caring for children,” the coalition wrote in a statement. “These platforms provide opportunities to earn when, where, and for however long you need — something that is necessary and that we need to protect now more than ever.”

For Kajal Lahiri, an economics professor at University of Albany, none of this is surprising.

“After the lockdown, with the restaurants closed, people are looking for alternatives,” Lahiri said. Though he still believes the demand for rides is low right now and nowhere near where it could be in the future.

Bornt wonders if she is going to continue having as much success as an Uber driver as more people get vaccinated.

“I do start to wonder now, because people are relaxing a little bit, if the business will go downhill a little bit because drivers are coming back on,” Bornt said. “I’ve been a little concerned about that.”

Assemblymember John McDonald surveyed his constituents in District 108 and asked them if they support gig workers remaining independent contractors or becoming employees, a controversial topic that was shot down in 2020 in California. Sixty-five percent of District 108 constituents said that they should remain independent contractors.

A lot of the responders to the survey said they use gig work to help make a little extra money on top of their full-time job and so want the flexibility, McDonald said. “There are a lot of people who want to have that flexible work schedule or they have childcare issues so they choose to drive at night to help with childcare cost.”

McDonald also said some respondents were worried that if gig workers were considered employees, the costs would get passed down to the consumer.

“Drivers have consistently said they want to remain independent contractors over employment by a 4 to 1 margin,” said a spokesperson from the coalition. “That’s because they prefer the freedom and flexibility to work when they want, where they want, and for however long they want. We are focused on policy solutions that reflect the independence drivers want, while providing access to benefits.”

Flexible Work for New York