In Pursuit of star star star star star

The gig economy is reinventing the way people go to work
and how consumers hire. It’s cheap and convenient, but is it fair?

Marc Hedges, 48, is considered an "Elite" worker on TaskRabbit. Despite his perfect ratings, though, he has had to make consessions to customers to ensure he maintains his prominent status on the site for future hires. Photo by Alexa Gagosz

By Alexa Gagosz, Carro Halpin, Aceel Kibbi and Rich Trombetta

Marc Hedges had just finished a three-hour gig installing a new smart TV when the customer asked him to only log two-and-a-half hours.

“I'm like fine, yeah, sure whatever,” said Hedges, a 48-year old former military veteran and worker on TaskRabbit, an online platform that connects handymen and homeowners. “The reviews are a direct reflection of me and what I'm about,” said Hedges, who said he has had to make concessions to customers to ensure he maintains a five-star rating.

Hedges was a member of the Laborers’ Local 151 Union in Cambridge until he was laid off during the 2008 recession. He became the first Tasker on the platform when it launched in Boston that year as Run My Errand. What began as a small side job once a month has since transformed into a full-time, yet flexible business. Hedges is now considered an elite-status ‘Tasker,’ a title reserved for the highest rated workers on the platform.

But the freedom to make your own schedule comes at a cost: making unfair concessions to keep a high rating and accepting sometimes humiliating assignments. Consumers wrestle with their own moral questions in the gig economy. Taking a cheap ride or handing off an unpleasant task is cheap and easy, but is it fair?

There’s a sharp divide in the way workers and consumers see their respective parts in the gig economy. The experience of workers ranges from empowerment to feeling like “a servant.” On the other side of the line, consumers’ views of workers run from “just someone I hired” to “a friend.” Either way, after the work is completed, compliments and critiques by the customer are highlighted in the app, accompanied by a starred review. Workers interviewed for this story complain that some negative reviews are unfair, and see them as a threat to their livelihood. Perhaps as a result, workers have admitted to a willingness to “do anything” for five-stars.

The tyranny of customer ratings

A former marketing director on Wall Street, Karimah Grana, 33, of Dorchester, prefers being a self-employed “set of extra hands” through TaskRabbit but said one of the worst aspects of the industry is the unfair negative customer reviews.

“I was [once] 10 minutes late rushing from a doctor’s appointment,” said Grana. “[The customer] acted all nice, tipped me, but then wrote this really awful review. I was dumbfounded.”

Number of reviews these elite Taskers have

Grana messaged the customer, expressing concern that the review could ultimately risk her job - but the customer never replied. TaskRabbit said it was a difference of opinion and never removed the comment.

Milton resident Ricardo John has driven for Uber for three years and said he has felt the effects of being treated unpleasantly by consumers, such as them throwing up in his car.

“I still just try and smile and be calm,” said John. “I don’t want a bad review. I can’t risk it.”

I absolutely feel like

Consumers can order anything from an in-home Swedish massage through the online platform Soothe, pay someone to wait in line on the website Fiverr or borrow a luxury car for the weekend with the app Turo. Hundreds of specialized apps connect customers to on-demand and affordable labor - and there are plenty of workers willing to provide it.

“I absolutely feel like a servant,” said Stacie Simon on some of the work she is hired to perform. Simon has completed more than 1,600 tasks on TaskRabbit over the past eight years.

Customers have hired Simon, 55, to do everything; a student paid Simon to call each morning to wake them up, she cooked meals for elderly and ill clients, and she wore someone’s shoes for two weeks to stretch them out. One client asked Simon to handwrite and deliver a letter to a woman she thought her husband was having an affair with. While Simon did write the letter, she refused to deliver it.

“My boyfriend is humiliated that I am doing this,” said Simon, of Lexington, who switched from full- to part-time gig work four years ago.

“I was exhausted. You go to sleep with nothing [planned for the next day, and then you wake up and your phone is exploding,” said Simon. She is now employed full-time in an administrative role at Tufts University’s Advanced Technology lab, but will still do tasks on the side for a small group of long-time regular customers.

"My boyfriend is humiliated that I am doing this."

Pat Loheed, 75, of Lincoln, hired Simon in 2016 to help with laundry and other household tasks following hip and knee surgery. She continues to hire Simon to help with laundry, packing, gardening and cleaning - but thinks of her as a “colleague” or “friend.”

“We have a reciprocal dependency,” said Loheed, who has brought back souvenirs for Simon on her travels to Europe.

Another one of Simon’s frequent customers, Carolyn Stockdale, 53, of Belmont, said she has tried to keep from forming attachments with those she has hired.

“[Simon and I are] friendly but not friends,” said Stockdale, who believes she would not be able to hire Simon anymore if they became “true” friends. “There would be an uncomfortableness with that. We would go out and then [I’d] have to pay her $300.”

A bargain for consumers,

Northeastern University student Rachel Eng, 20, opened the door to an Uber car that arrived to drive her from Boston’s South End to Back Bay. The driver, 29-year-old Arnaud Magapeche, a refugee from Cameroon, sat in silence as Eng buckled in.

“I know he is making less than what is fair,” said Eng. As she exited the car, she said it’s hard to trade in such a cheap way to travel.

“I made $7.47 from that ride,” Magapeche said as he waited for Uber to inform him of his next opportunity. Magapeche said he has to work at least 50 hours per week.

“I know he makes less
than what is fair.”

Rachel Eng

Not all gig workers are slave to rates they don’t set themselves. Hedges formerly charged prices so low that he could have “made as much collecting cans” in order to get more jobs and build a reputation through exemplary. Now his rates run from $68-72 per hour. However, an array of expenses come along with being self-employed.

“There’s no sick time, paid vacation or healthcare. That’s all on me,” said Hedges. “And I am constantly driving. I spend a lot in gas money.”

The “fair trade” gig economy

At least one company is tackling the morality of the gig economy head on. WorkAround, founded at Brandeis University in Waltham, creates flexible work for displaced Syrian refugees. Companies can hire refugees at $3 to $5 an hour for tasks such as organizing and annotating datasets.

WorkAround’s co-founder Wafaa Arbash, 30, of Boston, created the platform because she felt refugees’ talents were being wasted.

“Companies hire through Workaround not only to cut labor costs, but because it also serves a good purpose,” said Arbash.

“I'm not underpaid. It's good money for the work I'm doing. But is it sustainable as a full-time thing?
Maybe not.

“At first, I was skeptical, but I applied anyway,” said a 21 year-old worker who migrated to Turkey from Aleppo, Syria, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety. He typically has done video transcriptions, data entry, research and image editing. Depending on the type of jobs and his availability, he has worked four-to-six hours per week and was paid based on the type of gig he performs.

A return of $3 to $5 per hour in American dollars to organize data may not seem like a substantial income, but for Syrian refugees, it serves as an opportunity and is considered fair pay.

“I’m not underpaid. It’s good money for the work I’m doing. But is it sustainable as a full-time thing? Maybe not,” said the student. His most recent paycheck from WorkAround could cover three months worth of his rent.

As the demand for nearly any type of service can be hailed at the press of a button in an app, consumers are meeting their needs with gig workers. In turn, the workers are trading in guaranteed salaries, benefits and depending their livelihoods on good reviews for a flexible work schedule.

For Hedges, what started off as a side hustle during the recession has turned out to be a full-time career where he relies on these reviews for both consistent customers and income. He said he has a “rough” 401K and has forced himself to be frugal, instead of living day-to-day, to be successful in the gig economy.

“I’ve always been the person that just works,” said Hedges. “I’m quiet and I don’t complain because I’ve been taken advantage of more in the past.”