There has been an increase in “gig work” with the rise of companies such as Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart. These workers are independent contractors, and often do not receive health benefits or other protections afforded to more traditional salary-based jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique challenge for gig workers. Customers often want “ideal workers,” in which gig workers are expected to be available around the clock and devoted to their work. However, the pandemic has created increased physical and financial risk for these already vulnerable workers. How have gig workers managed the expectation to be ideal workers?
INTERVIEWS WITH GIG WORKERS DURING THE PANDEMIC
Researchers (Cameron et al., 2021) interviewed 49 gig workers across 23 U.S. cities and collected data from reddit postings as well as information from TaskRabbit—a digital platform that allows customers to hire workers for various tasks. Results from their qualitative analyses found the emergence of multiple themes related to experiences during the pandemic.
Results indicated that customers still expected gig workers to be an “ideal worker” during the pandemic. They wanted these workers to display competence, timeliness, and professionalism. If gig workers did not display these characteristics, they may have been given a low rating—potentially harming their ability to find future work. Willingness to take on physical risk during the pandemic became an important quality for gig workers; they were often hired to complete tasks that customers considered too dangerous to do themselves.
RESPONSE TO THE PRESSURE
Gig workers responded to this pressure in multiple ways. In some cases, gig workers would embrace the physical risk as part of the job. This allowed them to increase their income by taking risks that others would not. In other cases, gig workers adjusted the work that they did to mitigate their risk of contracting COVID-19. Some of this adjustment went unseen by customers. For example, gig workers would adjust the amount of in-person work they would offer or only complete work for repeat customers. This approach allowed gig workers to still maintain their “ideal worker” status for certain customers.
In other cases, workers would reveal their level of discomfort in completing a task. For example, they would wear protective safety equipment (e.g., masks, gloves) and asked customers to wear these items as well. Interestingly, some gig workers framed their concern as a protective factor for themselves, while others would frame their concern as protection for customers. Finally, some gig workers withdrew from their work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They felt that the expectation of being an ideal worker was too much of a risk for their physical safety. These workers either scaled back their work dramatically or left the platforms altogether.
The results of this study show that gig workers took on a tremendous amount of physical and financial risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some workers employed risk-management tactics to maintain their work, while others withdrew completely.
Based on the findings, the authors make several suggestions. First, as more workers continue to shift into gig work, it is critical that gig workers are aware of risk support groups to aid in managing work-related risks. These groups are offered in a variety of formats and may provide moral support and empower workers by providing them with options for navigating risks. Finally, the authors recommend that gig workers, who are independent contractors, should continue to advocate for strengthening the government social safety net. This could include health insurance and hazard pay – benefits that are offered to more traditional workers.
Cameron, L. D., Thomason, B., & Conzon, V. M. (2021). Risky business: Gig workers and the navigation of ideal worker expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(12), 1821-1833.