‘Worth It to Me’: Gig employers provide income stream for those seeking flexibility

Bryan Boettcher was about to upgrade his 2001 Saturn sedan when he found out his job was getting downsized. “Immediately, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be making this purchase. Am I going to be okay?’” Boettcher said.

But the father of two decided that the 2012 Mazda upgrade was not only essential, he could also make money with it working for on-demand transportation and grocery delivery companies.

“I wouldn’t have made the purchase if the ride sharing apps weren’t going to be there,” Boettcher said, who lives in Traverse City and works for Lyft, Uber and Shipt. “If Uber wasn’t in this area, I wouldn’t have bought a nicer vehicle.”

In the gig economy, more and more people are turning to online employers like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Shipt to supplement their income or work full time as their own boss. But in this changing economy, some workers say they are left making less money and going without benefits.

Lyft, Uber and Shipt launched in Traverse City in 2017 within months of each other, giving residents more options to make some cash.

Since being laid off from his job, Boettcher has currently been working full time for the apps, but admits to dipping into his savings to make ends meet. Although the apps aren’t paying all of his expenses, he believes it is possible to make a living from the online services.

“It probably could if I filled up all of the hours of the day and did it nonstop, but I am working on getting a small business started,” Boettcher said. “This is supplementing the time I can live off my savings.”

In September 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics published a survey reporting that 1.6 million people, or about one percent of the United States workforce, use apps and other online sites to find work. Of those workers, 5.6 percent were full-time independent contractors, who are often considered workers for online platforms such as Lyft, Uber and Airbnb.

Shipt, an online grocery delivery company, launched in Traverse City in August 2017 and has added 1,000 shoppers here, according to Director of Corporate Communications and Outreach Julie Coop. She attributed the company’s “exponential” growth to word of mouth.

“It has really become a staple in a lot of Michigan homes … we have a really good representation in Traverse City,” said Coop, who spoke to the Traverse City Ticker from her Birmingham, Ala. office. “We don’t share member numbers, but we do hire based on demand.”

She added that Shipt caters to the busy lifestyles that many people live. “We are providing supplemental income for some and for a lot of of them, this is a full-time gig,” Coop said. “And the benefit for them is that they have the flexibility to work when they want to. They can take off anytime; no questions asked.”

As a part-time parent, Boettcher said having this flexibility is one of the perks of working for an app. On average, he works about 10 hours a week, but during the holidays the demand increases and he can work as much as 30 hours in a week.

“When I’m not parenting, I’ll use my free time to go to the ride-sharing apps to fill it up with some work,” Boettcher said. “That is the number one value for me: being able to choose when I want to work.”

One of the downsides of working for apps is the inconsistency. “I could go out on Saturday for three hours and make $40 an hour or $10 an hour,” Boettcher said.

Indeed, a job listing search engine, reports that Lyft drivers make about $26.43 per hour.

Coop said Shipt shoppers can make up to $25 per order. “It varies by market,” Coop said. “We pay per order, obviously the more efficient you are with your order the more you make. You are kind of in control of your own destiny. Meijer is open 24 hours a day. We have seen shoppers do a standard eight-hour day with 15 to 16 orders. Just depends on the size of the order and the proximity to the store.”

In the gig economy, benefits like pensions, health care and 401(k) plans are becoming scarce and even non-existent. Only 16 percent of gig-only workers say they have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans, which could be from previous employers or a spouse, compared to 52 percent of full-time workers, according to the Gig Worker On-demand Economy survey by Prudential Financial. Additionally, traditional workers are six times as likely to have access to benefits such as life insurance.

“Of course, the more compensation they offer, the more likely I could make this work full time,” Boettcher said. He added that there are discounts and special offers that some apps offer, but not having benefits doesn’t come as as surprise to the freelancer. “I’m not subjecting myself to the whims of an employer to receive benefits,” Boettcher said. “I’m coming into it as my own business.”

On a recent Sunday, Jill Williams of Williamsburg stared at her phone in the Meijer produce section as other shoppers zipped by, oblivious to her at work. She had one more item on her Shipt shopping list to retrieve from the frozen foods section before checking out. The retired Kmart employee started Shipt in September and now does it in her spare time.

“It has been going pretty good,” Williams said, who worked at Kmart for 28 years. “Sundays are the busy days.”

On average, she will do about five to six deliveries on Sunday and two to three orders throughout the week.
“It all depends what comes up,” Williams said.

Williams said she believes it is possible to make a living if someone is dedicated. “If you do it from morning to night, seven days a week,” Williams said. “You could live on that.”

But for Williams it is not all about the money. “I like helping people,” she said. “Sometimes they have little kids or they are sick or they are older.”

It only took Christy Penrod, of Traverse City, eight shops to realize that Shipt wasn’t for her. “[I] figured out that making less than minimum wage per shop was not worth it,” Penrod said. On her sixth shop, her vehicle was rear-ended in the Meijer’s parking lot. She said other shoppers have experienced similar situations, including getting stuck in the snow and incurring other unexpected costs. “All these challenges come out of our pockets,” said the full-time driver for the Bay Area Transportation Authority.

On a snowy January Thursday afternoon, Boettcher sat in his vehicle in the Meijer parking lot near the Tesla charging stations after completing a Lyft assignment. The cold weather has been good for business, he said.

“Everybody needs a ride,” Boettcher said, who is proud of his good online reviews and knowledge of the area. “We have some really nice people in this city. And our visitors are always impressed.”

Lately he has been using Lyft more, because the “locals” use it.

He explained that Uber has surge pricing that jacks up the cost of a ride, especially during peak times, which pushes savvy users to other apps like Lyft, but is designed to encourage more Uber drivers to get on the road.

He said he was getting closer to getting his own business off the ground, but has no plans of  giving up his ride-sharing side job.

“I’m going to keep it in my back pocket as a long as I can,” Boettcher said. “If there is a really busy time, I can make a very good hourly rate for a few hours. I like driving in my car and I love meeting the interesting people I pick up. That is worth it to me. It’s something I plan to keep around for awhile.”