Single mom Melynda Ribardo, of Gloucester County, and her sister each had a baby during the coronavirus pandemic. Ribardo, a former certified nursing assistant, said working for DoorDash allowed them to plan so that someone was always home with their kids.
Now, more than a year into working in the gig economy, Ribardo said she “got addicted to the hustle and bustle.”
And, she needed to work on her terms. “Me being pregnant, I needed the flexibility. If I’m not feeling good, I’m going to go home,” she said.
In the last 18 months, such flexibility has become an even bigger work priority for many people.
Women are more likely than men to stay home when their kids’ school or day care closes, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It also found women left their jobs in droves because of pandemic safety concerns. On the whole, women’s workforce participation is the lowest it’s been in 33 years, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
At the same time, the number of women signing up to work for rideshare and delivery companies have surged, according to data from multiple companies.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of women who are signing up on our platform,” said Harry Hartfield, the public affairs manager for Uber in Pennsylvania.
In Philadelphia, the total number of Uber contractors is about the same now as it was pre-pandemic, at just around 10,000. But within that number, the percentage of women rose from 35 to 42, according to Hartfield, a 20% increase that mirrors national trends.
Women, in some cases more reluctant to have someone in their car, or to risk getting COVID-19 from a stranger, have tended to sign up to deliver food or UberEats over giving rides, said Hartfield.
Demand for food and grocery delivery has also risen since early 2020, as many people avoided grocery stores and restaurants. Delivery companies, some already predominantly staffed by women, have also grown their ranks during the pandemic.
A majority of the people shuttling food via DoorDash, 58%, are women, according to company data. Nearly 2 million more people joined that platform as workers during the first six months of the pandemic, according to spokesperson Campbell Millum.
Nearly 70% of the workforce for the grocery delivery service Instacart identify as women, according to a spokesperson. That rate has been consistent, even as the company’s workforce ballooned. In early 2020, the company increased the total number of “shoppers” from 150,000 to 500,000, and has maintained that level through the pandemic.
In December 2020, Christine Meyers, of Warminster, became one of them. Her daughter Angeline, 3, has developmental delays and her father, who lives with them, has health issues. So, after 20 years at one workplace, she quit her job at a lighting showroom in Bucks County.
“It was easier for me to be a stay-at-home mother,” she said.
For Meyers, that means delivering groceries for Instacart when her husband or in-laws are able to be with Angeline. On a recent shopping day, she started at 7:15 a.m. By late morning, she had made $50.99.
“If I really push myself, I can almost make the same amount” as she did at her old job, said Meyers. But pushing herself can backfire, like when she took an order that involved delivering several heavy cases of water, and ended up injuring her knee.
Still, she takes satisfaction in doing something she enjoys and on her own terms. “I’ve always liked shopping… [and] I’m like, ‘Well that’d be pretty cool if there was a personal shopper job,’” she said.
The tradeoffs of gig work’s flexibility
Unlike people in more traditional jobs, it’s not clear how well gig workers are captured in top-level economic statistics, including the national employment rate. In its own surveys of contingent work, the U.S. Department of Labor counted far fewer gig workers than other sources. That could be because a relatively small number of gig workers treat it like a full-time job, while a much larger number turn to gigs as a side job, putting in less than 10 hours a week, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.
That same report found slightly more women than men report ever having earned money in the gig economy.
This trend is not necessarily new, but the pandemic has put it in focus, said Angela Vogel, general secretary of the Philadelphia Drivers Union, which represents gig workers, and herself a rideshare driver from 2016 to 2020.
“It’s always been the fact that you’re going to see a much higher percentage of women and caretakers of children and elders turning to app-work” than to an equivalent job that is full-time, she said. For example, the reasons someone signs up to drive for Uber might be different from why someone becomes a taxi driver, said Vogel.
But with women doing more caretaking work, she said, it makes sense “they are more likely to need income opportunities that don’t require coming in for long shifts.”
Leaving the traditional workforce also has “huge” consequences for lifetime earning potential, benefits, and ability to save for retirement, said Erin Hatton, associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo and author of “The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America.”
Hatton said temp work has often been aimed at women, and that can cut both ways. On the one hand, it may provide access to paid work they may not otherwise have. On the other hand, it may not offer enough money or stability to be sustainable for everyone trying it. “There are a lot of different things going on,” she said.
For Melynda Ribardo, that tension is clear. Her baby is now 7 weeks old, and she has started delivering again after taking a few weeks off.
“I absolutely love the flexibility. I couldn’t imagine at this point going back to a regular job,” she said. But her sister ended up bailing on their arrangement, and taking a job at a medical office.
“She loves doing the gig work, but financially it wasn’t worth it,” Ribardo said.
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