‘I wouldn’t have been homeless if I had benefits.’ Gig economy workers demand better protections

(From left) Mia Kelly, Corwin Samuelson, and Chris Palmer share their stories from the gig economy at an event in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Of the six workers who gathered to share their experiences in the gig economy at a Seattle event last week, two had experienced homelessness in the past few years. They agreed it might have been avoidable if they had more protection from the on-demand services they worked for.

The panelists shared their stories at “Gig Workers Speak Out,” an event organized by the labor advocacy group Working Washington. The concerns they raised highlight broader questions about the gig economy and worker protection as conditional work is on the rise and traditional, full-time employment is far from guaranteed.

Corwin Samuelson told GeekWire he was “tenuously” housed in Massachusetts when he began delivering groceries for Instacart and driving for Lyft. He had an ongoing knee issue.

Samuelson says he was fulfilling an order with heavy liquids when all of a sudden he felt like someone had “taken an ax to my knee.” He had surgery and took three months off to recover, which meant losing his source of income just when hefty medical bills were adding up. That was the beginning of about a year-and-a-half of homelessness. During that time, Samuelson lived in a tent in the woods, crashed with friends, and stayed in shelters.

“The gig economy has allowed me to keep making money through periods of homelessness,” Samuelson said at the Working Washington event. “The knife-edge here is that I wouldn’t have been homeless if I had benefits like I’d have with a regular job. The general difference is that they aren’t seen by the company that they’re working for as worthy of that much support. They see us as disposable and that has to stop.”

Samuelson believes that the injury wouldn’t have occurred if he had more time between jobs to rest and recover. That type of paid time off is typically only available to full-time employees, not independent contractors.

Instacart does invite its contractors to apply to be part-time employee shoppers with more benefits.

“Transitioning from being a full-service Shopper independent contractor to part-time Shopper employee is frictionless and straightforward,” an Instacart spokesperson said. “Interested full-service Shoppers are encouraged to contact their Community Operations team for more information.”

Instacart said it does not comment on the cases of individual workers.

Samuelson said he didn’t pursue that option because he prefers to have more flexibility in his schedule. He’s now living in Seattle and delivering exclusively for Shipt.

“I am housed here, but it is still a struggle every month,” he told GeekWire. On the panel, Samuelson said, “if you’re working full-time or more than full time, you should not be making so little that you can’t afford to keep your rent up or food on the table or clothes on your body.”

Chris Palmer did various gig economy jobs for five years before securing a full-time position in another field. He continues to advocate for conditional workers. Like Samuelson, he also experienced homelessness as an on-demand worker.

Palmer was delivering for DoorDash and Postmates in March when he got behind on his rent.

“I was living in my van, waking up every morning, and having to go work about 12 hours a day just to get ahead and then putting part of that back into my car, gas, and then barely making even 20 bucks in that 12-hour period,” he said.

DoorDash and Postmates did not respond to GeekWire’s requests to comment.

In May, Palmer was able to secure housing. He decided to leave the gig economy behind and search for a job with benefits. Palmer is now a full-time guest services representative at Motel 6.

Gig economy work is often pitched as a side hustle, a way to supplement traditional income. But a 2016 survey from consultancy firm McKinsey found that about 44 percent of independent workers rely on that work as their primary source of income.

“I worked this full time,” Palmer said. “It was a full-time gig for me and there’s a lot of other people that do it full time. I was spending 60 hours a week just trying to make ends meet.”

For Mia Kelly, the gig economy is a way to supplement her primary income, which she makes as a pastry chef. On the side, she delivers for Instacart. But she still raised issues with conditional work as a panelist at the Seattle event.

“As a gig worker, I’m not really protected by the state’s laws that other workers have here in Washington state,” she said. “I don’t have healthcare. I don’t have time off. I don’t have sick leave. I’m not even protected if I get hurt on the job, which a lot of gig workers have gotten. I’m not even protected with unemployment. They will turn around and say, ‘well you are an independent contractor.’ And then on top of that, you’re taxed like a corporation. That’s not fair.”

Kelly and others on the panel called for a portable benefits system, which would allow individual workers to access services, like healthcare, without going through a traditional employer. Washington state actually considered portable benefits legislation last session but the bill did not move forward.

In January, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi co-authored an open letter calling for portable benefits in Washington state.

“The American social safety system, which was designed in the 20th century for a very different economy, has not kept pace with today’s workforce,” the letter said. “At a basic level, everyone should have the ability to protect themselves and their loved ones when they’re injured at work, get sick, or when it’s time to retire.”

Over the past few months, Uber has continued discussions with the state about portable benefits. The company is hopeful that legislation will be enacted in Washington. Until that happens, Palmer says he won’t return to the gig economy.

“I will not contribute any of my time to these gig apps until they make a change for the workers,” he said.