Gig work is on the rise and, for many in the area, a way of life

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Lor­raine Mirabella

By day, Leah Need­ham buys gro­ceries to de­liver to cus­tomers in White Marsh and Mid­dle River. But in the evenings, the shop­per for online gro­cery ser­vice Shipt trades in her green T-shirt for a pair of ball­room dance shoes and heads to her next gig. In a Glen Burnie stu­dio, she pur­sues her pas­sion, teach­ing cou­ples how to dance the tango, fox­trot and bachata. The 30-year-old Ham­p­den res­i­dent has al­ways patched together jobs. She earns a liv­ing with­out a steady paycheck or em­ployer-pro­vided med­i­cal in­sur­ance. The econ­omy has im­proved since she grad­u­ated from col­lege eight years ago, but still she dis­misses thoughts of work­ing for some­one else.

“I’ve thought about it … but it’s a trade-off with free­dom and flex­i­bil­ity,” she said. “You can lit­er­ally bend and ma­nip­u­late your sched­ule and your time to get where you want to be fi­nan­cially. … I can pur­sue what I re­ally love to do, which is dancing, and have an­other in­come to make that hap­pen.”

Need­ham is among the work­ers fu­el­ing what’s known as the gig econ­omy — in­creas­ingly a way of life in the Bal­ti­more area and na­tion­ally. Gig work­ers are in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors paid by the job, or gig. They say they want flex­i­ble hours and a chance to be their own boss. Many want sup­ple­men­tal in­come or a stronger re­sume. Some em­ploy­ers

rely on gig work­ers, while oth­ers turn to such free­lancers for hard-to-fill or spe­cial­ized jobs.

More than a quar­ter of work­ing-age Amer­i­cans earn money through some sort of free­lance or gig job, ac­cord­ing to man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm McKin­sey & Co. They de­velop web­sites, de­liver gro­ceries, drive people to work and school, of­ten set­ting their own terms for work­load, sched­ule and, some­times, pay. More than half do so to sup­ple­ment in­come from an­other job, while about 12 mil­lion to 13 mil­lion count their gigs as their pri­mary source of in­come.

Some fore­casts pro­ject as many as half of all U.S. work­ers could be free­lancers within the next decade, many of them by choice. A 2016 McKin­sey study found nearly three­quar­ters of Amer­i­can gig work­ers could have found a tra­di­tional job but chose gig work in­stead. It’s an eas­ier path thanks to the growth of dig­i­tal plat­forms — think Uber — link­ing work­ers and em­ploy­ers and work­place shifts away from desk-bound, nine-tofive jobs.

For years now, younger work­ers have been ac­cus­tomed to mov­ing from job to job and even ca­reer to ca­reer. “This gen­er­a­tion is tak­ing it one step fur­ther. … ‘Why not go try and do it my­self and build my own busi­ness?’” said Su­san Lund, a McKin­sey part­ner and ex­pert on global la­bor mar­kets. Dig­i­tal plat­forms have “opened the door to a lot of people who don’t have a par­tic­u­larly unique set of skills to earn money in this way. It has low­ered the bar­ri­ers to en­try to any­one to try.”

Need­ham said jug­gling life as a ball­room dance teacher and Shipt shop­per “fits my life­style right now.” Teach­ing dance by ap­point­ment con­trib­utes about 70% of her in­come, with per­sonal shop­ping mak­ing up the rest. She buys her own health in­sur­ance — a big ex­pense, she said, but she has ad­justed her work­load to cover it. She took on Shipt when it launched in the Bal­ti­more area last year in March.

“It’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing gig,” she said. “I love the phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity of it, just con­stantly be­ing up and mov­ing and try­ing to get things. It’s like play­ing su­per­mar­ket sweep­stakes, but you get paid.”

Gig work also of­fers flex­i­bil­ity for stu­dents and people car­ing for chil­dren or el­derly par­ents. It can be a grad­ual exit from the la­bor force for the semi-re­tired, Lund said.

But the lack of ben­e­fits and less sta­ble in­come can be daunt­ing, she said, mak­ing it harder, for in­stance, to qual­ify for a mort­gage or other loans.

And some ar­gue the gig trend will be bad for work­ers in the long run.

La­bor lead­ers have stepped up crit­i­cism re­cently of ride-shar­ing com­pa­nies such as Uber, Lyft and Via. Crit­ics ar­gue those mod­els trap driv­ers in low-wage, no-ben­e­fit jobs and com­pete with and threaten pub­lic tran­sit. The AFL-CIO ar­gues in a re­cent re­port that ride ser­vice com­pa­nies mis­clas­sify em­ploy­ees as in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors and ar­ti­fi­cially drive down costs by pass­ing main­te­nance and in­sur­ance ex­penses to driv­ers.

“Be­cause some­one is a part-time worker does not mean they can’t be an em­ployee,” said Larry Wil­lis, pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO’s trans­porta­tion trades depart­ment. “There are a lot of jobs where people work part-time but the law af­fords them the pro­tec­tions of still be­ing an em­ployee… Many [work­ers] are barely mak­ing ends meet, and once they back out ex­penses, they’re not mak­ing min­i­mum wage.”

The la­bor union wants more states to follow the lead of Cal­i­for­nia. A law based on a 2018 Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court de­ci­sion will re­quire busi­nesses to clas­sify more work­ers as em­ploy­ees, not in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors, mak­ing them el­i­gi­ble for over­time pay, sick leave and other ben­e­fits. The mea­sure, to take ef­fect next year, is al­ready be­ing chal­lenged in court, in­clud­ing by a truck­ers associatio­n that wants its mem­bers to con­tinue to be able to work as in­de­pen­dent driv­ers.

The abil­ity to work on her own sched­ule is mak­ing all the dif­fer­ence in re­tire­ment for Deb­o­rah Dent. Dent, 68, of Millersvil­le, re­tired in 2013 as a tele­phone as­sis­tant at Bal­ti­more Wash­ing­ton Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Glen Burnie, A cou­ple of years later she heard about Uber and signed up. Driv­ing people to and from work, school, doc­tors, the airport and other des­ti­na­tions gives Dent a way to stay ac­tive, meet people and take va­ca­tions with­out having to dip into her re­tire­ment sav­ings.

Most morn­ings, she heads out in her Toy­ota Corolla around 4:30 a.m., takes a break in the mid­dle of the day, then some­times takes pas­sen­gers in the evenings. Once she earns $100, she turns off the Uber app for the day. She typ­i­cally earns up to $600 a week, spend­ing about $150 on gas and weekly car de­tail­ing.

“This is so that I can live my life to the fullest, and do what I want to do,” said Dent, who has trav­eled to Mi­ami, Paris and Am­s­ter­dam and plans a cruise to Ja­maica. “I didn’t re­tire to be a couch potato.”

It’s a good time to be a gig worker be­cause em­ploy­ers ap­pear willing to hire as needed for par­tic­u­lar jobs and to give star­tups a chance, said Owen Henry, who started a fledg­ling tech­nol­ogy con­sult­ing com­pany from his home in Bal­ti­more’s Mount Ver­non neighborho­od.

For now, it’s a side busi­ness and he and a busi­ness part­ner have kept full-time day jobs. But on lunch breaks, in the evenings and on week­ends they turn their at­ten­tion to Blue Heron Dig­i­tal, build­ing web­sites, fix­ing email pro­grams and rec­om­mend­ing dig­i­tal strate­gies for small busi­nesses and non­prof­its. In less than a year, the startup has at­tracted more than 10 clients that have signed con­tracts rang­ing from $600 to $1,000.

“For us it was as much about be­ing dis­sat­is­fied with the way we were work­ing in our day jobs,” said Henry, 31. “We like our jobs, but they are still very stan­dard desk jobs where you have to go into an of­fice. [Start­ing a busi­ness] has been more about life­style and flex­i­bil­ity than money.”

It’s been chal­leng­ing amid a pro­lif­er­a­tion of web­sites of­fer­ing free­lance gigs that have drawn com­peti­tors from around the world and, in some cases, sup­pressed prices.

“Our type of work is gen­er­ally well paid, but we find our­selves com­pet­ing on gig econ­omy sites with people from other coun­tries that have lower costs of liv­ing. They’re able to of­fer rates be­low what we can charge,” Henry said.

One free­lance plat­form, Up­work, hosts 375,000 free­lancers and 475,000 hir­ing em­ploy­ers at any given time, a third of them For­tune 500 com­pa­nies. Up­work said it spe­cial­izes in match­ing pro­fes­sion­als to busi­nesses seek­ing spe­cial­ized tal­ent.

Jobs are as var­ied as game and soft­ware de­vel­oper, au­dio pro­ducer, an­i­ma­tor, tech­ni­cal and grant writer, mar­ket­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions spe­cial­ist, and me­chan­i­cal, elec­tri­cal and chem­i­cal en­gi­neer. Em­ploy­ers who post jobs are promised qual­i­fied pro­pos­als within 24 hours, en­abling them to com­pare bids and check re­views and prior work be­fore con­nect­ing for in­ter­views.

“Th­ese are not people who think of them­selves as gig work­ers. They think of them­selves as pro­fes­sion­als, with years of ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Shoshana Deutschkro­n, Up­work’s vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and brand. “Th­ese are people choos­ing to work this way. They used to have tra­di­tional jobs and re­al­ized they could have a dif­fer­ent life­style.”

The share of people find­ing work online is grow­ing fast, Deutschkro­n said. As of last year, 64 per­cent of free­lancers found work online, a 22 per­cent jump from the pre­vi­ous year, she said.

Em­ployer post­ings, too, have grown as busi­nesses find “they can’t get all the skills they need by hir­ing in tra­di­tional meth­ods,” she said. “Busi­nesses that are try­ing to be com­pet­i­tive … are re­al­iz­ing they have to be more in­no­va­tive.”

Kolya Tevosyan, a web de­vel­oper, finds all his free­lance projects on Up­work, choos­ing from among hun­dreds of post­ings for his pro­fes­sion. Tevosyan, 32, left a graphic de­sign busi­ness he ran with his brother in 2014 to spe­cial­ize in Word­press web devel­op­ment. He be­gan ap­ply­ing for jobs and soon re­al­ized he wanted to work for him­self. The father of a young son and daugh­ter set up an of­fice in his Rockville home, where he and his wife, a graphic de­signer, build and re­vamp web sites for start-ups and large busi­nesses alike.

He starts most days sub­mit­ting mul­ti­ple bids, a quick online process that usually lands his busi­ness, Word­press Lab, two to three new projects a month. De­vel­op­ers skilled in Word­press are in de­mand — he has com­pleted more than 260 projects in the past four years and has a dozen more in progress. That’s been more than enough, he said, to off­set the cost of buy­ing his own health in­sur­ance for a fam­ily of four.

“You need a good rep­u­ta­tion and good past ref­er­ences, and if you have those two, it hap­pens,” Tevosyan said. “People see that you are a good qual­ity web de­vel­oper, and they hire you. Be­ing the boss of your life, it’s worth ev­ery­thing.”


Leah Need­ham, a 30-year-old Ham­p­den res­i­dent, gives a pri­vate dance les­son to Vince McClenny, 60, in a Glen Burnie dance stu­dio.


Need­ham, who has a side gig as a per­sonal shop­per, stands next to a cart Nov. 21 out­side a Tar­get.


DeB­o­rah Dent, shown here out­side Si­nai Hospi­tal, uses her car for ride hail­ing to sup­ple­ment her in­come.

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