Didier Ganza was getting used to the stress. The 32-year-old father of two would come home from a 12-hour work day having barely made his quota, and he’d already be worrying over the next day. His kids, a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old, weren’t getting enough time with their father, and all of Didier’s passions were on hold. His jobs driving across Collin County and the Dallas-Fort Worth area for Uber, Lyft and, in his words, “every other rideshare you can think of,” were slowly ruining his life.
“When you depend on ridesharing to feed your family, there’s always anxiety, there’s always uncertainty,” Didier says. “It’s hard to know how much money you’re going to have at the end of the week.”
Didier, who lives in Aubrey and is originally from Rwanda, left his rideshare gigs at the end of 2019 and took a job driving trucks, but in many ways, that gig was just as stressful. Then, on a drive near DFW airport, he saw a billboard for a company called Alto, a Dallas rideshare start-up. Unlike Uber and Lyft, which employ contract workers, Alto hires drivers as W-2 employees, with benefits like paid time off included. Didier figured he’d give it a shot, so he applied. He was hired two weeks before COVID-19 hit North Texas.
Since then, a lot has changed for the rideshare industry and the so-called gig economy at large. Travelers nixed their plans, so AirBnb took a hit. People stopped wanting to ride in cars that weren’t their own, so Uber’s profits plummeted. The rideshare industry was already facing an existential crisis ignited by California legislation that demands contractors be deemed employees. That would give Uber and Lyft drivers benefits like minimum wage, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, and more.
In other words, the pandemic has exacerbated an already volatile gig economy, catalyzing some changes that may have otherwise taken years to come. But while Uber and Lyft resist the call to give their drivers benefits, gig economy employees are trying to survive and make ends meet in a global pandemic.
“The same attributes that make the gig economy strong have also highlighted a weakness at a time like this,” says Donna Letier, founder of the Dallas gardening company Gardenuity. “With no central point of control, the gig workforce has a harder time managing through the current landscape, and with no common resource of support, it makes the unknown more daunting.”
Now more than ever, gig economy employees need the stability offered by a full-time position.
“So much more is possible when you have the security of a stable job,” Donna told me over the phone. “It can really change your life.”
The gig economy is the labor market composed of freelance or part-time laborers. Gigging continues to rise in popularity, with a recent study predicting that the majority of the workforce will be involved in some freelance activity by 2027. Many of these laborers, including men like Didier, work 40 or more hours per week with one or more “gigs.” For example, a recent University of California, Berkeley study found that one third of Uber drivers in Seattle work full work weeks.
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Last year, a study by FitSmallBusiness.com found that Texas was one of the country’s top five most “accommodating” states to gig economy laborers. Population, tourism, and out-of-pocket health insurance costs help make the state a friendly destination for anyone seeking the flexibility of a gig economy job like Uber and Lyft. For millennials, that flexibility remains one of the biggest draws for participating in the gig economy.
“I think the biggest appeal is the flexibility around it and the fact that you’re kind of your own boss for those jobs,” Jeff Steen, one of the leaders of the study, told the Dallas Business Journal. “You can set your own hours, determine how much you want to work based on your budget and your financial needs.”
Another 2019 study, this one by McKinsey, found that the majority of gig economy laborers considered themselves happy and healthy. However, sociologists point out that the gig economy only serves to enrich those who do not need the extra income, such as independent hoteliers using AirBnB. Worse yet, these researchers believe the gig economy has a “corrosive” effect on labor rights. Thus, even before the pandemic arrived, gig economy laborers were endangered by a system that encourages long hours of work but does not offer the benefits nor security of what we typically consider “full-time” work.
In addition to causing rampant unemployment, COVID-19 has cast gig laborers in the role of saviors. When the virus forced many people inside, employees for platforms like Postmates kept delivering because they had to. Without paid sick leave or the opportunity to work remote, they had no other option. This only amplified the calls for benefits that activists have been trumpeting for years. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft continue to claim that they will cease operations in California if the aforementioned legislation mandates that the state’s gig laborers receive employee benefits. It remains to be seen how this California clash will end, but Alto may offer a glimpse at the gig economy’s future.
Founded in 2018, the Dallas company owns the vehicles its drivers use, and interviews are required for all employees. Furthermore, drivers get access to performance management and training, and they get sick leave and paid time off.
Will Coleman, the company’s CEO, says he and the company’s founders were motivated by what they believe is exploitation.“There were a lot of folks being really exploited in this industry and being asked to create an attractive product for consumers but a relatively unattractive product for the people doing the work,” he says.
Alto is more expensive than your typical Uber or Lyft ride, but Will insists the additional dollars are worth it. According to him, the company has tripled its spending on cleaning products to keep drivers and passengers safe during the pandemic. It’s all part of what he says is a commitment to drivers and passengers, and an ongoing effort to build “trust,” a commodity he covets with unbounded zeal.
“Maybe it makes sense to pay a dollar or two more to make sure the drivers can take care of themselves,” he says.
At least one Alto driver has been able to take care of himself like never before. Even though he started just before the coronavirus landed in the United States, Didier says his Alto gig is the best job he has ever had. He still worries about the pandemic, but he feels confident that the company is taking the necessary precautions. Unlike at Uber and Lyft, at Alto he does not get company notifications pushing quotas. He can take time off when he needs to, too.
Best of all, Didier finally has the time to see more of his kids and focus more on his passions. He says he’s launching a podcast soon, and spending more time creating video and audio content, which is what he studied in school when he first came to the United States.
“At the end of the day, we want a way to provide for our families and have a life, too,” Didier says. “Drivers just want to be compensated.”