Matter: Quit your job and go to work

Originally published by Matter, Lauren Smiley
June 10, 2015

Photo by Medium.com

This spring, Michanne was striding out of a San Francisco apartment lobby in her Google Express jacket, fresh off delivering a mirror. Her van beckoned at the curb. It was branded in Google’s playful primary colors and logo, and on the side was the image of a package getting dropped from a parachute, easy-peasy. Michanne’s job was to make same-day, seamless deliveries of bottled water and kitty litter for Google Express, but she doesn’t actually work for Google Express — not directly, anyway. If you looked carefully, just below the van door, a few small, gray letters spelled out something most people didn’t realize: this vehicle wasn’t Google’s after all. It belonged to a company called 1–800Courier

That day had actually been a good one. Michanne, who is 27, had worked the full eight hour shift that she’d been scheduled by 1–800Courier — one of several companies that delivers for Google Express in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City. But full days like that were becoming rare. (She didn’t want to use her last name for privacy reasons.)

When I called her back a month later and asked her to rate her job from 1 to 10, she was more upfront about her level of annoyance: “If 1 is a nightmare, I’m like a 1.5.” In fact, she’d quit.

Her complaint came down to this: she says 1–800Courier had verbally assured her full-time work when she started with the company back in October. It was a paycheck the new mother was counting on, one that didn’t leave her time to work another job. And in the company’s scheduling app she was technically scheduled for 40 hours a week for weeks in advance.

Yet, increasingly, her actual hours were decided the day of work. Michanne had to check her email an hour and a half before her first shift started to see if she would actually get to work the hours she’d been allotted. Many times she did not. She was a supposedly full-time employee who was, effectively, on-call. She’d put aside the day so she could work, but when it turned out they didn’t need her, that meant no work — and no pay.

In April, an email plunked into Michanne’s inbox, describing what she says was business as usual.

Even when she got the go-ahead to turn up for the day, Michanne’s shifts would often be cut once she was already at work. Around 5 p.m., as she ate in her van during an hour-long meal break, she would frequently get a call from the dispatcher, telling her to go home early without working her scheduled second shift. She’d still get paid something— California law mandates payment of between two hour and four hours of “reporting time” depending on the length of a cancelled shift. But it was still a huge issue: Although she was expected to be on-call for 40 hours a week, shift changes meant she was regularly dipping down to 25 hours of paid work, and even once as low as 17 hours, she recalls. At $13 an hour, she was hoping for $520 of work each week — but 17 hours is just $221.

Google pointed questions towards its contractor, which manages all scheduling for its deliveries. 1–800Courier’s California Director of Operations David Finney said that across the industry, the delivery business slows down after the holidays. “I personally empathize with that,” he said about employees whose hours get cut. “But at the same time, look at any industry in the state of California — especially in the service industry — and some days it’s just like ‘Hey, we’re sorry, we don’t need you to come in.’”

Another employee of 1–800Courier, who asked to remain anonymous so as to not irk the company, says the scheduling problems were sometimes bad for the company, too. Back in January and February, when business seemed especially slow, this worker would clock in and sit in the delivery car near the hub for hours, waiting to be dispatched. “I’d have movies picked out to watch, I got a pillow and took naps, and had stuff I wanted to read and write. I’m getting paid to do nothing. But I wouldn’t call [dispatch] and say, ‘I need a route.’ It didn’t bother me at all.”

What did bother the Netflix-watching worker was this: more than 10 times during seven months on the job, their first shift was cut while it was already happening. But the worker was booked on to a second shift, and was made to wait around until that started. Since driving the vehicle back to the parking lot in Silicon Valley from the San Francisco dispatch hub would eat up most of the time, the worker would often drive to the movies or the mall in the city to kill time until the second shift. (The worker once got written up for taking the vehicle to Safeway during that time — saying they expected employees to just wait in the vehicle for the next shift, or drive it back to the Silicon Valley lot.)

The complaint is echoed by another former 1–800Courier worker who recently quit: “I was really getting irritated. They said ‘it’s not as high demand right now, we don’t have a lot of orders coming through, so we’re cutting the hours.’” A couple times, while the worker was in a carpool on the way to work, the dispatcher would call and say, “Oh, we removed you from the 12–5 window, you can just work for 5:30 to 10. I’d just go home and say ‘Remove me from the last window.’” The current driver says things have picked up lately, especially after a major lay-off of drivers in March that has given those who remain more work to do. 1-800's David Finney wouldn’t confirm a layoff, but said drivers are now regularly working overtime hours.

The whole idea behind the on-demand economy — touch-of-a-button delivery, often guaranteed within minutes — creates the potential for a sudden rush or dearth of customers at any moment. So how does a company make sure that the right amount of workers are around at the moment it needs them to be?

You’d think that this is something that Google, the emperor of analytics, might be able to figure out. But the company it had chosen to organize the deliveries, 1–800Courier, had not. Sometimes workers lucked out and watched movies in their cars, but more often they suffered for their employer’s failure. There may have been an abundance of employees scheduled for shifts, but ultimately the people were just as on-demand as the Costco kitty litter they delivered.

Outside of Silicon Valley, American labor is looking a lot like this already. The old, sanctified status of “employee” is getting egged in the face. The days of blue-collar job, suburban tract home, Disney vacay, and pension awaiting at the end of the 9–5 rainbow looks like a curious blip on the way to a more profit-maximized, capitalist future. It’s the age of the precariat: unions are nearly kaput, many will only know pensions from history books, and most “at will” workers can be fired as easily as Uber can kick its drivers off the app. Now many old titans of industry have latched onto this idea of on-call shift work — which many call “just-in-time scheduling,” — a grayish labor abuse tailored for the age of the text message that has lawmakers hustling to curb it.

Since the recession, millions of workers have taken part-time gigs when they’d prefer to have full-time ones — especially in hospitality and retail. And those part-time jobs increasingly jerk the workers around: In a University of Chicago study of young workers in hourly jobs, 41 percent said they got their shifts a week or less in advance. It gets worse from there: as a recent story in Harper’s Magazine laid out, companies use software to track customer flow down to the minute; resulting in managers who ask workers to be on call for work shifts, or clock out while on the job and hang around without pay during slow times to see if the workflow will pick up. Sarah Leberstein is a senior staff attorney from the National Employment Law Project, which has been monitoring the hellish scheduling practices. “The companies want to unload all the flexibility onto the workers, but workers can’t afford to live in such a state of flux.”

This spring, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to 13 national retailers including Urban Outfitters to Target to Gap to Sears, questioning them about using software tracking systems and whether they made employees get the go-ahead for work less than a day before a shift:

Re: Request for Information Regarding “on call shifts”

Our office has received reports that a growing number of employers, particularly in the retail industry, require their hourly workers to work what are sometimes known as “on call shifts” — that is, requiring their employees to call in to work just a few hours in advance, or the night before, to determine whether the worker needs to appear for work that day or the next. If the employee is told that his or her services are not needed, the employee will receive no pay for that day, despite being required to be available to appear on the job site the next day or even just a few hours later on the same day. For many workers, that is too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay.

If “just-in-time scheduling” sounds a whole lot like on-demand work, that’s because it is.

It’s not just in America that this practice is increasing. In Europe, it’s called the “zero hour” job — you’re promised work, but guaranteed nothing. And these contracts have been causing controversy in Britain ever since the financial crisis, which saw a dramatic rise in the number of just-in-time jobs as employers offloaded their risks onto the workforce. Today, almost 2 million jobs in the U.K. are now on-call. In some cases, workers are denied the benefits of full-time employees, or are prevented from finding other paying gigs without the permission of their employer — even if that employer cancels all of their shifts.

And it’s not just service industry jobs: zero hours have spread into other areas of the British economy, too. Recent figures suggest 13 percent of all healthcare workers and 10 percent of all education jobs are now in the same kind of hole that Michanne found herself in. (Finney from 1–800 said he does not consider the company’s scheduling to fall into the “just-in-time” trend.)

“The writing on the wall is we’re going to see more of an Uber and Lyft approach to workforce management in more industries,” says Carrie Gleason from the Center for Popular Democracy, a Brooklyn-based labor and social justice nonprofit. “You can see that in the just-in-time scheduling — you only want to pay for people when they’re doing the most productive work. The cost of doing business is put on the worker, so any time they’re not producing a car fare or a retail sale, it’s the worker paying for that time, not the company.”

On-demand companies pitch themselves as ultimate disrupters, breaking free of stuffy, old-world straitjackets of work. For many companies in this exploding area, there are no zero hour jobs — because the jobs have no set hours at all. The workers are independent contractors, not employees, and, at many companies, can log into work when they choose. In fact, Silicon Valley’s Chief Optimism Officer, Marc Andreessen — the venture capitalist who is funding Lyft and Instacart to build our app-based freelancer future —recently waved away a reporter’s comment about the precarious app workers in the New Yorker: “Maybe there’s an alternate way of living,” he said. “A free-form life where you press the button and get work when you want to.”

It also saves companies payroll taxes, wages, benefits — and the headache of scheduling workers. (“What other job out there can you just turn it on when you want to start and off when you want to stop — whenever you feel like it?” asked Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in his five-year company anniversaryspeech last week.)

“Uber doesn’t care if 100 or 200 are reporting to work because Uber will get the same percentage of the fare” says Leberstein, the National Employment Law Project attorney. “They’re shifting the burden of deciding whether there’s enough work onto the workers.” Many companies go so far as to give drivers a weekly breakdown on the most high-earning hours — in fact, there are entire apps dedicated to helping workers track that for themselves.

Companies claim these freedom-loving toilers will flee the moment they’re pinned down by shifts or bureaucracy. Their own internal studies suggest this is true: one Uber-commissioned poll of drivers showed more than 70 percent preferred to be their own boss rather than work a 9-to-5. About 50 percent of Lyft’s drivers drive five hours a week or less. A survey by the Freelancer’s Union found 42 percent went freelance to have more flexibility in their schedule.

“If everybody has to work a certain amount of hours, then it would put the model at risk because then it would be a very rigid model,” says Pascal Levy-Garboua, the head of business at Checkr, and organizer of a conference about the on-demand economy held in San Francisco last month. He has driven for Lyft in the past anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week to see how it works for himself — then goes months without driving at all. “That would be the opposite of on-demand. Demand and supply are elastic, and the model works because there’s an equilibrium. If supply” — the industry’s term for what the rest of the world usually calls “workers” — “is not elastic, the model breaks.”

Yet a survey of more than 1,000 workers released last month by Requests for Startups, a tech-booster newsletter, popped a hole in what had been the great selling point of contract work in the new economy:

Work hours are demand-dependent despite the touted schedule flexibility.Although schedule flexibility is the #1 stated reason for joining a company as a contractor, ‘Peak hours / demand’ ranked highest amongst influencers of their work schedules, with nearly 50% selecting it as a very important influencer (‘My Family’ was the 2nd highest at 35%). This influence is particularly glaring when comparing current vs. ideal hours of ridesharing respondents, whose responses suggest that their ideal working hours aren’t too far off from the traditional 9–5.

Among the top reasons for leaving the job were insufficient pay (43 percent) and — spoiler alert for industry cheerleaders — insufficient flexibility (26 percent). In short, while the apps may be good for people who have another job and merely want to pad their income, if workers want to make a living on these apps, they actually have little flexibility — they need to work full-time or more, and they better be signed into work during the peak times.

The on-demand workplace is not one-size-fits-all: while complete flexibility works well for driving services with a 24-hour demand and a ready stable of drivers, companies dependent on burritos and Thai take-out reaching hungry customers have to be a bit more organized about who is on hand at meal times.

To get around this problem, many companies have started doing to their independent contractors exactly what 1-800Courier does to its employees: schedule them onto shifts.

At Postmates, an on-demand food delivery company, contractors sign up the week before for shifts in down-to-the-hour increments — those who confirm their availability are offered potential jobs first, meaning they can end up making substantially more than those hopping on the app to work spontaneously. As further motivation, Postmates also guarantees couriers who sign up for shifts a minimum of $15 an hour on weekends — if their jobs don’t add up to that, Postmates will pay them directly.

Scheduling contractors is a legally gray thing to do — since shifts are one of the IRS’ criteria in determining that a worker is an employee. (Indeed, Postmates, like many companies, is currently facing a lawsuit over classifying the couriers as contractors.)

Postmates says they aren’t shifts, exactly: workers aren’t bound to the hours they pre-select — they could just not sign into the app during the shift. Yet there are consequences. If they miss five of their allotted hours in a week, they’ll be suspended from work for 48 hours, as this email forwarded by one courier warns

In order to avoid banishment, Postmates contractors ask for swaps on the app, much like employees have to do when they can’t make a shift.

And, like ridesharing companies, Postmates has another mechanism to get unscheduled contractors out on the road during peak times: its own surge-pricing model called “blitzes.” While the courier’s take of the delivery fee always stays the same —80 percent — blitzes increase that fee two or even three times the usual amount.

Postmates also polices the workers once signed in: one courier in New York City who asked not to be named (he didn’t want to get kicked off the app) showed me texts from the company: sometimes Postmates asks him why he’s not accepting more jobs, sometimes it commands him to stop only accepting jobs that he determines will be worth his time, and sometimes it suspends him temporarily from the app entirely. A Postmates spokeswoman says the real-time texts are aimed at getting feedback on why certain jobs aren’t attractive to couriers.

The take-away: as traditional jobs are looking more on-demand, on-demand contractor ones aren’t looking as flexible as they claim.

So where does that leave us? Employment and contractor labor models already seem to be converging at some sort of semi-flexible purgatory.

In the eyes of those who cry that companies like Uber or Lyft or Postmates are getting rich off exploiting a labor loophole — blithely skipping out of paying wages, benefits, and expenses like gas because they classify workers as freelancers—companies like 1–800Courier are actually playing the good guy. (Or at least the less evil guy.) The company has official employees which it pays $12.50 to $13 an hour, plus worker’s comp, overtime, and expenses, including gas and the occasional parking ticket.

“I do want to go on the record to say we try really hard to do right by our employees,” Finney from 1–800Courier says. “We’re not going to pass that cost onto someone else so we can save a buck… We’re practically one of the only companies in the state of California that uses the employee model. It’s the right thing to do, and, in the long run, it will be the best solution because we’ll be able to provide the best service because we have employees. With independent contractors, there’s a lot of control you give up because you can’t tell independent contractors what to do.”

Still, 1–800Courier's own problems show that employers in the on-demand economy have to be adept at managing their workflow. Otherwise they’ll lose money on wasted labor when there’s low demand, or be caught short when there’s a sudden surge.

This is not impossible. Already some on-demand companies claim to have figured it out.

One vocal proponent of employees in the industry is Managed by Q’s CEO Dan Teran, who has written about the decision to employ its workers to clean and manage offices in New York City. Their workers get to choose their work days and receive a steady schedule, and the company books them at worksites that are on convenient subway routes from their home or other job sites. Still, the company gets off easy since most of the workflow is pre-determined and consistent week to week.

The San Francisco food service Munchery has been also held up as one of the good guys in the new push-button delivery business — one of a short list that employs its couriers. One San Francisco bike messenger named Jennifer told me Munchery pays $18-an-hour plus tips from a collective tip pool — much higher than minimum wage. Still, Munchery experienced its own trip-ups. Jennifer told me that after she started working for them at the beginning of the year, there were too many messengers working the four-and-a-half hour dinner delivery window. “They were just sitting around waiting. I was told that it had been really slow for many months,” she says.

Around the end of January, Jennifer says Munchery laid off 11 bike messengers. (CEO Tri Tran would not give details of the company’s staffing, but says the layoffs were not a huge correction considering the size of his payroll: “Ten people we need to shift around — that’s a very small number for the workforce we have.”) Munchery also gets out ahead of its demand by putting parameters on how instantaneously “on-demand” it can be: outside of San Francisco’s city limits, you have to have ordered dinner by 2:00 in the afternoon, and choose an hour-long delivery window.

The workflow problems seem to be resolved for now. Since the layoffs, Jennifer says she’s delivered a steady flow of meals with little loafing.

Still, Munchery has a strong advantage: people generally eat dinner at a predictable time. Consistency is a harder promise in truly in-the-moment businesses, like Uber and Lyft, Postmates, or Google Express. How can employees ever be scheduled with perfect accuracy in those businesses? Does an hourly employee have to work rigid shifts?

Shannon Liss-Riordan is a Boston-based labor attorney suing many on-demand companies over their attempts to classify workers as contractors. She says flexible shifts aren’t incompatible with employee status: “That’s total BS. Employees can have flexible work schedules, employers are doing that all the time. All of these arguments being made are real red herrings that they’re trying to throw out there. It’s part of the whole ‘Oh, the workers love this, because they love the flexibility.’ You can give them flexibility, andpay their worker’s comp. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.” She cites one precedent-setting California case about cucumber growers who were found in California Supreme Court to be employees, even though they could set their own hours.

Of course, salaried, white-collar workers — who can call their own shots and rarely earn overtime — often have a great deal in flexibility at work. That’s harder for employees getting paid by the hour. Could part-time employees log in and out of work willy nilly, paid by the hours they actually work? Highly unlikely. If companies have to pony up for the workers, there’s little benefit to them for allowing workers to come and go as they please. Shelby Clark, executive director of Peers, which helps on-demand workers find and manage their workload, has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the base cost of having employees. Companies only start recovering their employee costs if workers are putting in a baseline of hours, but not overtime, “so you’d probably have a floor and a cap [on hours], and then not more than eight hours a day. You’d start to see a lot of constraints that defeat why people work in the sharing economy.”

That’s exactly what the disgruntled New York City Postmates courier told me. Despite getting pestered by texts to accept more jobs and bad tips, he explained why he stayed: “The only thing I like about this job is the freedom and flexibility.” Take away that, and he’d do what companies fear the most, especially as the competition for these workers grows: he’d never sign in for work again.

Which was exactly what Michanne at 1-800Courier did, after being forced to be flexible when she wanted stable work. In late April, she quit. Ironically, even though she was an employee, her reasons for leaving were the same as all those on-demand workers who were surveyed: lack of flexibility and low pay. She now works at a car dealership, 9-to-6.

The 1–800Courier ad on Craigslist.

It appears 1–800, on the other hand, is only ramping up. In the last month, the company has blanketed Craigslist with job ads for Google Express drivers to deliver for a “new upscale concierge service,” “a really cool company” to deliver retail items to homes and businesses around Silicon Valley. “It makes me wonder why they fired all those people, if they’re just going turn around and hire more,” the current employee told me while sitting in her van waiting for a second shift to begin last week. “Just so you can fire everyone again?”

Among the listed perks in the ad? “Stable schedules” and “multiple shift choices.”