Making Demands on the On-Demand Economy

When I decided to quit working full-time as a digital marketing consultant to focus more on different career fields, I needed to find alternative streams of income. So out of necessity and curiosity, I’ve worked as a shopper for Instacart and a driver for Uber.  Participating in the on-demand economy as a provider instead of a customer taught me a lot about myself, the companies, and society at large – and made me ask questions that are uncomfortable and confusing.

On the one hand, these companies should be lauded for providing much-wanted services like on-demand grocery shopping and delivery and on-demand taxi and chauffeur services. They should be commended for making it easier for freelancers like me who want to work flexible, part-time or full-time hours safely and conveniently.  On the other hand, the more I work for them, the more I feel that these kinds of companies should increase their vigilance and assess their policies to avoid exploiting employees and misleading customers.  Here are some questions that concern me most:

1. Do these companies promise overly optimistic wages that don’t meet worker expectations?

A lot of sketchy companies say things like, “Make up to XX dollars working from home!” I’m not saying that on-demand companies are sketchy.  But I do think that they should err on the low side when discussing earnings with potential new hires.  Many workers start their jobs with wrong ideas about what they will earn, and this can seriously harm their financial planning abilities.

2. Do frequently-changing compensation packages confuse and mislead workers?

On my first day at Instacart, a seasoned worker gave me tips on how to succeed. She described one aspect of our compensation in thorough detail and explained how to use this to our advantage. I found out a month later that she was completely wrong about how this worked; either things had changed since she started working and she hadn’t gotten the memo or she had misunderstood from the get-go. I know that she was sincerely trying to help us, and the fact that she had such a flawed view of how she was paid for a job that she had worked at for over a year really bothered me.  I encountered other workers who were confused about various aspects of their compensation, and this often worked against them. On the positive side, I really appreciated how much transparency and effort both Instacart and Uber demonstrate to communicate these changes to their workers. I just wish they didn’t change things so frequently.

3. Is the worker’s earning potential out of his or her control? Is it up to the whims of chance, an algorithm, or some other unknown or confusing force?

Uber and Instacart both try to predict demand so that they can rally their troops and offer the supply to meet it. But that’s really hard to do on a consistent basis. For example, if I work a shift for Instacart or Uber, I may wind up sitting in my car for a few hours while I wait for an assignment. This means I may devote precious hours of my time to a “job” just to earn zero dollars.  Of course there are tricks and tips that drivers and shoppers can implement to increase earning potential – work during the busiest hours, for example – but there are still many factors that impact demand that are totally beyond a worker’s control. If these services could find ways to empower workers – for example, if I could build up a client base and have people call me directly, or if I could be "on call" but perform other work at home until hailed – they would be much more worker-friendly.

4. Do net earnings for on-demand workers always meet or exceed living wages?

You’re supposed to accept that these jobs vary in demand and earnings. It’s like waiting tables. Sometimes you’ll have a good night and come home with a wad of cash tips. But sometimes no one tips you at all and a bunch of sorority girls trash your table and you have to clean it up because the busboy is getting high behind the dumpster and a drunk guy hits on you and throws up all over your uniform.  Sometimes you earn a lot of money driving for Uber or delivering groceries for Instacart and sometimes you barely break even.

But if the demand economy wants to create a sustainable, valuable workforce that isn’t constantly churning, it will have to ensure that workers are paid more than minimum wage at all times.  I don’t think it’s OK for a worker to hope to earn decent pay on average over a week or month. Reasonable compensation that roughly matches compensation for similar work under similar conditions should be a consistent result of working, not a wish or a bonus.

5. Is the worker burdened with too much responsibility?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find out methods that on-demand companies try to take care of their employees (usually in ways that also benefit the companies). It’s nice that Uber can help you buy a car or phone so that you can work for them. It’s also great that Instacart offers some insurance coverage for your car while you work. But Uber doesn’t reimburse you for vehicle maintenance and Instacart won’t reimburse your parking meter costs. The worker has to pay for these and many other costs of doing business. Yes, it’s the on-demand company’s prerogative to choose what it will pay for, and people have a choice not to work for it if they don’t like the terms.  But I still think this lack of financial support for materials and costs that are directly related to serving end customers is fairly exploitative.

6. Won't drones replace these jobs, so none of this really matters, anyway?

We’ll probably have self-driving cars and grocery delivery drones in a few years, so all my concerns for these particular companies won’t apply.  I’ll welcome the robot overlords (heck, I might even become a drone pilot). Nonetheless, these issues could easily plague any on-demand business, and they should serve as cautionary tales for as long as humans still do this kind of work.

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