For about a third of Americans, regular hours and benefits are giving way to a patchwork of contracting, temping, and moonlighting. The way we make a living is changing.
One sign of this trend is the success of the website TaskRabbit, where so-called Taskers can pick up gigs. It’s a little bit like the peer-to-peer car services Uber or Lyft, where people use an app to hire a driver. But on TaskRabbit, you can hire people to do almost anything: from common handyman work, to organizing your closet, to holding your place in line for an iPhone 6.
This wide-range means the service has the potential to transform the way a lot of work gets done in the 19 cities where TaskRabbit operates. San Francisco is one of its top users — and I decided to see what a day in the life of a Tasker is really like.
A day in the life of a Tasker
Tasker Alex Holmes and I are hopping on the freeway in West Oakland to head to his first job this morning. Holmes is merging on the freeway while glancing at a task request on his phone. Apparently, the life of a Tasker means accepting and declining tasks while driving.
“If your availability is open you have 30 minutes to respond to a task no matter what,” Holmes says.
Holmes is an art school/activist type in his late 20s living in Oakland — and he’s broke. Or he was. Until he joined TaskRabbit. He’s since been paid $40 an hour to work the elevator at a party thrown by a tech firm; $30 an hour to save a spot in line for the iPhone 6; and $30 an hour to save someone a patch of grass at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
He’s actually managed to build a full-time job out of all these one-off gigs — only, without the security of an actual full-time contract. This can be stressful at times, like when he forgets to sign off at night. When this happens, Holmes says he wakes up to “a panic stricken nightmare [because] if you lose so many tasks they can fire you or something.”
According to the website’s terms of service, TaskRabbit can actually terminate you for any or no reason. But so far, Holmes hasn’t had any problems. He says he’s gotten as much work as he wants. And he’s happy to schedule his own hours and vary his workday.
Holmes shoots his client a text to let her know he’s outside. While we wait, Mark Lauton pops out of the apartment building nearby and chats us up. Holmes fills him in about TaskRabbit, at which point Lauton leaps to ask, "Can you do my online dating?"
The answer is yes — this could really happen on TaskRabbit. There is a personal assistance category, with all the miscellaneous tasks that don’t fit into handyman, event staff, delivery or cleaning. With some of these jobs, TaskRabbit really is creating a market that didn’t exist — for people who can afford it.
Holmes’ client lets us in and ushers Holmes into her living room. He’s here to assemble an Ikea dresser. It should take two hours or so, and he expects to make about $100. Not too bad for a day’s work. But some say it’s not so great in the long run.
Ken Jacobs, with the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, says the success of TaskRabbit shows how tough it is now for recent college grads to get what their parents would call “a real job” — especially in the Bay Area, where the tech industry has “got a lot of very young people making a lot of money really quickly, while their peers are struggling to get by.”
Thanks to the tech boom, there are a lot of other jobs popping up. In fact, says Jacobs, “Every tech job results in the creation of four and a half other jobs. Some of that is accountants and lawyers but a lot of that is low-paid service jobs.”
TaskRabbit is a part of that. But service jobs don’t come with many securities.
“In addition to stagnating and falling wages, we’ve had a real decline in the share of workers receiving benefits through a job,” Jacobs says. That means health care benefits, pension benefits, retirement security, worker’s comp — all have fallen dramatically. And Jacobs says, as solid middle-class and union jobs disappear, the class divide becomes starker.
After wrapping up his task, Alex Holmes says it’s very clear what side of that divide he’s on, especially when the client hiring him is not an individual person, but a tech startup or company.
“Usually my least favorite tasks are when there’s a very clear line drawn in the sand of, this is our space, this is our culture and you’re the help,” he says.
By Holmes’ estimate, about 70% of his clients have been startups. So while TaskRabbit bills itself as “neighbors helping neighbors,” the exchange is often not peer-to-peer. TaskRabbit reported last April that 40% of the company's revenue comes from startups and even bigger companies — who look to the service when they want simple, one-off jobs done.
Holmes says unfortunately, a lot of his clients make him feel like, “You’re the guy that’s drilling holes in our wall and we’re the dudes doing the important work here.”
The task he just wrapped up was a different story. He and the client got along great. But, he tells me, there was a little bit of a disaster.
“I get to the point where I’m installing the drawers — and this has been two and a half hours of work and I’m like, 'Cool I’m going to be done in five minutes.' And, of course I find I’ve nailed one part of the particle board wrong,” he says.
The mistake was just bad enough that he realized he’d not only have to re-assemble everything, he’d actually have to go back to Ikea, get a replacement, and come back and re-assemble the piece for free.
TaskRabbit actually has damage insurance to cover Taskers in cases like this. Media relations says the company wants to make overall conditions better for Taskers. They’ve set a minimum wage of $18 — higher than the city of San Francisco’s, for the time being. And they’ve introduced a portal that connects Taskers to discounted health insurance policies. They say they can make Tasking a secure job, while keeping the flexibility and the intimate, "neighbors-helping-neighbors" feel. But at the moment, Holmes doesn't feel so great.
“I had to swallow some pride,” he says.
In the end, his client gave Holmes a good review. Not because he did a good job, but because she thought he was a good guy.
CORRECTION: The audio story and an earlier version of the web post stated that Taskers can be "fired for any or no reason." In fact, because Taskers are not employees they cannot be "fired." Rather, the company can terminate Taskers' right to use the service for any or no reason.
This piece originally aired in February 2015.