Sakhr Sharafadin was making $8 an hour in the kitchen at a Little Caesars, during his senior year of high school, when friends started telling him about their work as Uber drivers and food deliverers for an app called Caviar. Though he’d been promoted to night manager just six months after he started at Little Caesars—the location’s youngest manager ever—the job had begun to feel like a dead end. As high-school graduation neared, he needed more money for his share of the rent, for books and tuition, and to pay for his car. When he was 15, he and his younger brother had arrived in Oakland, California, as immigrants from Yemen, leaving his mother back home in a country on the brink of war and joining his father, who worked behind the counter at a liquor store in San Leandro, California. Many of his friends were young immigrants like him, with lofty dreams for their futures. At 18 years old, Sharafadin was too young to drive for Uber (the company requires drivers to be twenty-one), but not too young for Caviar, so he downloaded the app and signed up. Driving for ride-share companies had become popular in the Yemeni community, in particular, because it didn’t require purchasing a taxi medallion, speaking advanced English, or acquiring expensive training or a degree from an American university; all Sharafadin needed to sign up for Caviar was a license, a car, a social security number, and a smartphone.
Sharafadin spoke English well himself, and had aspirations to graduate from college, but he wanted more hours, better pay, and a shorter wait to get paid. At Little Caesars, it took two weeks to receive a paycheck. “With Uber, you can get paid instantly; they just drop the money in your account right then,” he said. Who hasn’t wished, at some point or another, that he could snap his fingers and see that day’s pay appear in hand? On his first day working for Caviar, as he zig-zagged throughout the Bay Area, double-parking in front of packed restaurants, racing inside to pick up to-go bags, and dropping them off at homes, the amount he’d earned from each assignment flashed on his screen. After eight, then nine hours, he didn’t want to stop; the app was like a video game, encouraging him to keep going. From that first ride on, he worked full-time for Caviar. And as soon as he turned 21, he began driving for Lyft and Uber too, and making deliveries through Amazon Flex, while working toward his associate’s degree at Laney College, a community college in Oakland.
Sharafadin had been driving a 2000 Lexus ES, but, at the time, Uber required a 2005 model or above, and he felt he would get dinged on customer ratings with a shabby car. He bought a 2015 Toyota Camry hybrid, putting him $25,000 in debt. That meant he needed to work more often to pay off his car loans, so he stopped taking classes at the community college. In 2014, his left eye began bothering him, but none of the doctors he visited—all out of pocket—figured out what was wrong until at least a year in. They finally diagnosed him with late stage keratoconus, in which the cornea thins, blurring the afflicted person’s eyesight. The keratoconus was giving him double vision. He needed healthy eyes in order to drive—but fixing the problem required surgery and expensive contacts, and he had no insurance, nor any prospects of getting employer-provided insurance as a driver in the gig economy. He put nearly all of it on his credit card.
Until the early aughts, a person working in an entry-level position at, say, Little Caesars, could have a reliable, consistent, full-time work schedule around which he could orient the rest of his life: college, sleep, childcare. But a little over a decade ago, computer-optimized scheduling systems began transforming those jobs from full-time positions to a patchwork of irregular, part-time shifts that could change from one week to the next. Workers could be paid less and receive fewer benefits, thus maximizing a company’s bottom line. Later, after the 2008 economic crash, apps like Uber, Caviar, and Airbnb became popular. In the on-demand economy, if a person found himself with a couple of hours between commitments, he could just turn on an app and make some quick cash. Freelancers—a group that includes highly paid corporate consultants, Uber drivers, and freelance journalists like me—now make up a quarter of the U.S. workforce, according to a Marketplace/Edison Research poll.
Young immigrants comprise much of the retail and service sectors. They sometimes have limited education and English skills, and face extra costs like sending money to dependents back home and paying off debts they undertook to travel to the United States; those who are undocumented often face the additional burden of not having papers authorizing them to work. While breaking into the U.S. economy as a foreigner can be difficult, the gig economy offers quick, accessible work that allows for flexible schedules and generally pays well above the minimum wage (though it does require valid immigration papers and a social security number). According to the companies, their workers are satisfied and optimistic: In a 2015 study published by Uber, 61 percent of surveyed drivers said their financial security was better after joining Uber, and 71 percent said their income increased.
When Abdi Hussein, a 30-year-old Somali refugee, first arrived in the U.S. six years ago, the International Rescue Committee helped him find work as a shelf stocker at Old Navy, and then as a security guard for a company called ProGuard, stationed in the lobby of a downtown Oakland office building. His main goal in the U.S., though, was education. He began taking classes at Laney College, but it became increasingly hard to align his class schedule with his work schedule. He started driving for Uber. Hussein, who has since transferred to California State University East Bay, now balances a 34-hour work week for Uber with a full load of classes. After expenses, and without any sick leave or other benefits, he estimates he’s making about $17 or $18 an hour on his best days, before taxes. Comparatively, that’s not so bad. Today’s San Francisco taxi drivers make an average of only $13.92 an hour—far lower than Hussein’s likely take-home pay, and for a job he likely wouldn’t be able to balance with his school schedule.
The short-term benefits of gig work, though, may not outweigh the long-term costs. Igor Radulovic, who has worked as a job developer at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency, for the past twenty years, is tasked with finding refugees work in their first months in the United States so they can become self-sufficient. His clients need to pay their bills, but Radulovic also wants to find them work that sets them up for the types of professional opportunities that, along with war and persecution, brought them to the United States in the first place. He believes that, though working at companies like Uber can be an excellent first option for newly arrived immigrants, gig jobs are a dead end for most, particularly young people with a long future in the U.S.
Gig workers are characterized as contractors—companies like Amazon and Lyft simply provide the platform through which a driver can connect with a customer—which means they aren’t entitled to benefits or other protections. In practice, though, there is implicit control over the jobs they take and the hours they work. A driver can be penalized for turning down a job, or even kicked off the platform if he does this too many times; drivers can also be suspended from the system if the market is overflowing with too many of them. Gig workers’ nebulous existence, somewhere between employees and traditional contractors, has instigated several lawsuits. An April decision in the California Supreme Court may force the state’s gig economy companies to begin treating their drivers as employees, which would make them entitled to additional employment benefits, but it could take years for any changes to take effect. Saba Waheed, the research director at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Labor Center, a left-leaning research and policy organization dedicated to labor rights, told me, “The entire risk of this employment is on the worker,” while the company reaps the profits.
The work is explicitly advertised as temporary, but, for many workers, it has a way of becoming more long-term than initially planned, with limited opportunities for advancement. If someone starts out at Chipotle, Radulovic points out, she might be making minimum wage, but she is eligible for benefits; if she works hard, in a few years she could be promoted to a management position with a decent salary and benefits. Though a driver might eventually be able to get a job in the corporate office of a company like Uber or Rinse, these require vastly different skills, and drivers are not cultivated for upward mobility (though a Caviar representative estimated that about half of the company’s office jobs are held by former drivers). “If you work as a driver for Uber,” Radulovic says,“in three years, you’re still just a driver.”
I knew Sakhr Sharafadin before all this. In 2013, he was a lanky, upbeat, and tirelessly social student at Oakland International High School, where I coordinate community programs. When I recently reconnected with him, he had turned 22 and was mired in both car and credit-card debt. Gas, insurance, oil changes, tire rotations, and new tires cost him thousands of dollars a year. When he was working for Caviar, he got a handful of tickets for double-parking his car. Plus, his $25,000 car is now worth only $10,000. “A lot of people think they make a lot of money,” he said, “but when you look at it, you end up paying for a lot of things without realizing it.” He estimates that he makes $10 an hour, after expenses, though the exact number is hard to pin down. He had dropped out of college so that he could work 12-hour days. For safety purposes, Uber and Lyft both limit drivers to twelve and fourteen-hour shifts respectively, but Sharafadin, like many gig workers, switched back and forth between the apps so as to extend his hours. “This is temporary until I pay whatever I owe,” Sharafadin insisted, but it wasn’t clear it would end anytime soon. Sharafadin paused and added, “Seems like it’ll be forever.”
The gig economy’s promise, years ago, was that it would provide more pay, flexibility, and autonomy than the unreliable part-time jobs that the retail and service sectors increasingly offered. But Waheed, of the UCLA Labor Center, sees the gig economy as simply the next generation of the computer-optimization revolution that upended the retail and service sectors a decade ago. Gig work might seem flexible, but the companies’ implicit control over workers—the way they penalize them for turning down jobs, for instance, or incentivize them to drive during certain times using surge pricing—means that gig workers, without realizing it, have just become part of a new labor-optimization game.
Abdi Hussein, the California State, East Bay student, has learned he can make the most money during morning rush hour and late nights when the bars close, when there is often surge pricing. Though he’s free to work whenever he wants, he’s incentivized to work when the demand is highest—meaning the schedule is inherently less flexible than it might seem. The late-night cash boost can come with rude drunken banter or even the occasional backseat-vomit episode. “Times like these,” Hussein said, “you think, what am I doing?” But he is sure the work is temporary, providing him good income until he graduates college and becomes a certified public accountant.
Sharafadin, too, wants to go back to school and move on to another career whenever he pays off all of his debt and has saved enough for another eye surgery, as his right eye has now begun to deteriorate from keratoconus. The good thing about the gig economy, he admits, “is that you can work as many hours as you want.” These days, he drives for Uber not because of the promise of high hourly pay, but because, combined with his other gigs, it lets him work twice as much as he would anywhere else. “You think it’s going to be a really great job, and it’s good, but it’s not as great as it sounds,” Sharafadin told me. I have often heard people say something similar about coming to the United States. Perhaps gig work is like the American dream itself: at first, full of promise, and then, rife with disappointments.