Quang Nguyen Vinh

The Pandemic Investment That Allowed Gig Workers to ‘Break Free’

Receiving unemployment assistance and pandemic relief funds gave some gig workers space to breathe – and rethink their careers entirely.

Story by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle

Published on

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The following is an excerpt adapted from “Side Hustle Safety Net: How Vulnerable Workers Survive Precarious Times” (UC Press) by gig economy researcher Alexandrea Ravenelle. Featuring 200 interviews with workers before, during and after the pandemic, Ravenelle shows how even minimal government relief has massive long-term benefits that outweigh the costs.

Before the pandemic, 30-year-old Cody was working as an inventory planner for an online home goods company, supplementing his income with daily dog-walking gigs on the app Rover, and occasionally listing his bedroom on Airbnb.

Once the pandemic started, his dog-walking gigs ended abruptly, and his job laid everyone off. It took 10 days for Cody to establish his status of “officially unemployed” and to begin receiving unemployment benefits. He was able to quickly parlay his status into receiving Medicaid slightly more than a week later, and soon moved in with his parents.

While he began applying for jobs, “the unemployment and unemployment extension has definitely allowed me to take a more relaxed stance towards it,” he said. “I don’t want to dive right into a stressful situation. And honestly, I don’t really ever want to work 80 hours a week unless it’s something I really love … I don’t feel that desperation, I don’t feel that financial need.”

In July 2021, he signed a five-year commercial lease for several thousand square feet in Brooklyn, to the tune of $7,250 a month, to open up his own pet daycare and boarding business. Now, he owns a successful business with five workers on the payroll.

In a phenomenon dubbed the Great Resignation, a historic 47.8 million workers quit their jobs in 2021, nearly 4 million each month. While early stories about the Great Resignation were replete with tales of executives reassessing the role of work in their lives, most of the job quitting was centered on workers in the service industry. But a later analysis found that most of the 2021 job quitters were actually job swappers, trading up for better pay and more stability in their scheduled hours and reducing the number of underemployed workers involuntarily working part-time.

Some of the job changes that workers experienced during the pandemic were not just upgrades to their work hours and incomes. The status of “officially unemployed” provided recipients with the time, money, and safety to envision a new and improved future. Given the time and financial security to rethink their careers, some workers experienced “pandemic epiphanies” that led them to start businesses and change careers — opportunities that transformed their lives and led some to call the pandemic “the best year of my life.”

For Cody, the pandemic provided the time to read business books and create his business plan. “This whole thing came to fruition during the pandemic,” he said. “Even renting the place, building it out, that was all happening while I was unemployed.”

His status of “officially unemployed” gave him the time to reevaluate his career to that point and reflect on what he wanted to do next. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation that he received in addition to his regular weekly unemployment — roughly four months of $600 a week and more than thirty-five weeks of $300 — partnered with the opportunity to move in with his parents, provided him with the income and free time needed to create a business.

Katelynn, 24, had spent eight years as bartender and server before the pandemic started. When the bar where she worked shut down in March 2020, she faced months of delay before she would begin receiving benefits. Needing to pay rent, she took a cashier job at a local Target where she was working more than 40 hours a week. By the time her unemployment assistance finally started, she was ready to quit.

“I don’t really like putting myself out there dealing with the whole coronavirus. And there’s people yelling at me about how ‘it’s all a socialist hoax,’ and I’m like, ‘Just put your mask on and take your groceries and leave, please,’” she said. “Oh my God, people are crazy at Target.’”

When the bar reopened in June 2020, Katelynn returned to bartending. But as coronavirus surged again, bars and restaurants were given a 10 p.m. curfew, decreasing her income and increasing her frustration at her job. When she “flipped out” at her boss for suppressing the news that a coworker was Covid-positive, “he decided that I shouldn’t work there anymore.”

Katelynn turned to Instacart in the meantime.

“I had no idea what direction I wanted to go in … I wanted some stability and I wanted a normal sleep schedule, a normal work schedule.”

A friend worked for a dentist’s office and Katelynn asked if they were hiring. At the end of December 2020, she started as a dental assistant, the person who hands instruments to the dentist. “I didn’t think I was going to have such an affinity for it, but I am absolutely in love,” she said. “I love doing even oral surgery when we’re ripping out people’s teeth and wisdom teeth.”

A high school graduate who had attended college for two weeks before extenuating circumstances forced her to drop out, Katelynn applied to a local community college in early 2021 to finish her prerequisites before applying to dental hygienist school.

“Covid is obviously awful, but it is one of the things that really spurred me to change my life and it’s been positive in quite a lot of ways for me,” she explained. “I went from working 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. to working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. like a normal, regular person. I can spend way more time with my boyfriend now. I feel like I can actually come home and do chores without being hungover all day.”

Declining the offer for a “good decent job” in order to open one’s own doggy daycare, or quitting bartending to become a dental assistant, might not seem at first to be an exceptional job change. But research shows that a full-on career change — the type that occurs when someone with some tenure in an occupation changes both occupation and employer — is not common. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that workers with at least three years invested in their previous occupation who left for a new occupation and employer made up only about 1.2% of all employed workers.

The pandemic amplified the problems workers were already experiencing: the insecurity and instability, the lack of workplace protections and benefits, the growing threat of long-term unemployment, and the outsourcing of risk and disavowal of corporate responsibility. But the officially unemployed status, by providing eligible workers with access to extended and enhanced unemployment assistance, changed the calculus in three important ways: by providing free time, reducing financial pressures, and keeping people protected during a public health crisis.

For Katelynn, the career change was an opportunity to “break free from those chains” and avoid being a bartender for life.

“I felt like I was always just going to be stuck in the bar with a bunch of drunk people, and that was it, and that was the only way I was ever going to make money,” she said. In her new job, she assists the dentist and provides comfort to patients during nerve-racking procedures. “I went from a bunch of drunks calling me a ‘stupid bitch’ every day to doctors telling me I’m ‘really smart and a fast learner.’”

As with many bar and restaurant workers, Katelynn’s pay fluctuated, she didn’t receive any benefits, and she was regularly subjected to abusive comments, all of which have been correlated with an increased level of turnover. In 2021, restaurant data provider Black Box Intelligence found that 62% of restaurant workers reported receiving emotional abuse and disrespect from customers, with 49% reporting abusive behavior from managers. Black Box’s survey of 4,700 former, current, and potential future restaurant workers found that 15% of surveyed workers had left the restaurant industry in the past year, with another 33% hoping to leave.

The major driver of the resignation? High levels of dissatisfaction, with only 42% of workers describing themselves as satisfied with their jobs, down from a prepandemic rate of 64%. Among the workers who had already quit jobs in restaurants, bars, and hotels, 56% cited low pay, while 50% wanted a new career. Almost equal numbers of workers blamed a lack of benefits (39%), difficult customers (38%), and long hours with rigid schedules (34%), as the reasons behind their resignations.

“I don’t have to use Medicaid anymore. I have health insurance. They give me like $10,000 in life insurance for free every year. It’s wonderful,” Katelynn said. “I went from being a bartender and being completely broke and not knowing what to do with my life to now having a career and not having to worry about my job being taken away by another random pandemic. I have stability now.”

Ignoring the arguments for a single-payer insurance system, and the point that the cost of Medicaid is generally less expensive than private health insurance, there is a taxpayer cost associated with having low-income workers on a public health insurance system, or simply going without.

Paying $21,000 — the cost of the CARES Act enhanced unemployment assistance for fifty-three weeks — in order to move someone into a more stable job with benefits seems like a pretty decent return on investment.

By comparison, $21,000 is roughly the price of attending the University of North Carolina with room and board, for an in-state student, or a year of attending City University of New York as an in-state student and living at home. It’s also roughly equal to the cost to keep someone in a New York state prison for two weeks.

Attending UNC, attending CUNY, and going to prison are all activities that can change your life, but a single year of college is unlikely to transform one’s career. Yet for Katelynn and so many other Americans, a few months of enhanced unemployment assistance during the pandemic allowed them to change their lives and careers for the better.

Excerpted from Side Hustle Safety Net: How Vulnerable Workers Survive Precarious Times by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle, published by University of California Press. © 2023 by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle.

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Alexandrea J. Ravenelle is an assistant professor in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a Faculty Fellow with the Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS), and a 2023-24 Russell Sage Foundation Visiting Scholar. She is the author of “Side Hustle Safety Net: How Vulnerable Workers Survive Precarious Times” (UC Press, 2023) and “Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy” (UCPress, 2019).

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