In Pursuit of Five Stars
The Gig Economy is cheap and convenient. Is it fair?
Photo by Alexa Gagogsz

This story is part of a four part series on the Gig Economy.

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.

The odds are in your favor

Percent chance that your Taskrabbit worker's reviews are all 5 stars

Source: Review of 1620 reviews on Taskrabbit

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.

  "I can't risk a bad review."
   Ricardo John, Uber driver
   Photo Pexels

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."
   Stacie Simon, TaskRabbit worker
   Photo Pexels

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,”

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.

I would pay more to ensure Uber drivers make minimum wage.
Created with PollMaker

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.”

  "I know what he is making is less than fair."
   Rachel Eng, student

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 rate of pay a worker is able to charge increases with tasks completed.

Image Rich Trombetta. Data source: TaskRabbit

Some local companies are setting higher standards with worker-friendly practices.

Dave Spina, General Manager of Jiffy On Demand Boston physically meets and vets every professional on the home maintenance platform - who are required to have insurance - and Jiffy will help them get it. Jiffy’s straightforward, set rate card ensures all workers are paid fairly and don’t need to compete with multiple price quotes.

“It is a broken system and we see an opportunity to improve the industry,” said Spina.

Jobble foresees an expanding market in connecting gig workers with the benefits they traditionally would receive from their full-time employer, such as financial services and health insurance. Headquartered in Boston, the platform already helps hourly workers find companies hiring in events, delivery, food, hospitality, retail and “light industry.” The Boston Globe has previously used Jobble to hire people to hand out fliers, according to Jobble’s CEO, Zach Smith.

“We want to be a community and marketplace where they can come in and get all the tools they need to maximize their income experience,” said Smith.

  "I won't pay for ethics."
   Maya Michalewicz, Boston resident

Dr. John Basl, a professor of ethics at Northeastern University believes there are solutions. He suggested an “external ethics certification” to provide transparency for consumers. Similar to people who accept the additional cost of free range meats or fair trade coffee, Basl said he believes that, “people will pay more to be associated with companies they know are ethical and will distance themselves from companies that are not.”

But not everyone is able or wants to pay more for on-demand services. Maya Michalewicz, a 20-year-old college student in Boston often may tip an Uber or Lyft driver, but it depends on the situation. For longer rides, such as to the airport, she will tip, but said she won’t otherwise.

While she has seen people treat drivers poorly, her position is clear: “It’s very transactional. I won’t pay a premium for ethics.”

Michael Henetz, 22, of Newton seemed to agree, “I am all for them having their own union but as a consumer, I want to pay less. I don't think about the drivers.”

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.”