Striving for Five Stars

"Gig work" - it’s cheap and convenient, but is it fair?

Marc Hedges, elite TaskRabbit worker, installs a dishwasher in Lynn, MA.

By Alexa Gagogsz, 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 and elite-status ‘Tasker’ on TaskRabbit. “The reviews are a direct reflection of me and what I’m about,” said Hedges, explaining that he sometimes makes concessions to customers 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.

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?

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 says one of the worst aspects of the industry is unfairly 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.”

Grana said she also reached out to the customer and told her the review would ultimately risk her livelihood but the customer never replied. TaskRabbit said it was a difference in opinion and never removed the comments.

Milton resident Ricardo John has driven for Uber for three years and said he has felt the effects of being treated unfairly by consumers from them throwing up in his car to bringing their personal issues onto him.

“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 a servant."

Consumers can order anything from an in-home Swedish massage through Soothe, pay someone to wait in line on Fiverr or borrow a luxury car for the weekend with 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, 55, of Lexington, who has completed more than 1,600 tasks on TaskRabbit over the past eight years.

Customers hire Simon to do everything; a student paid Simon to call each morning to wake them up, elderly and ill clients need meal cooked. Simon 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, 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 as a labs coordinator at Tufts University, but will still do tasks on the side for a small group of long-time regular customers.

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.”

Marc Hedges, elite TaskRabbit worker.

“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, a rip off for workers

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. “It’s tough to make a conscious decision because this is 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.

Not all gig workers are slave to rates they don’t set themselves. Hedges, who once charged prices so low that he could have “made as much collecting cans,” now bills $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 translations or data and machine learning tasks.

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.

“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.

I don't want a bad review.I can't risk it.

“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.”