Federal workers take on odd jobs to make ends meet

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

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ARIZONA, USA (AP) — When her pay cheques dried up because of the partial g overnment shutdown, Cheryl Inzunza Blum sought out a side job that has become a popular option in the current economy: She rented out a room on Airbnb .

Other Government workers are driving for Uber, relying on word of mouth and social networks to find handyman work and looking for traditional temp gigs to help pay the bills during the longest shutdown in US history.

The hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Government employees have more options than in past shutdowns given the rise of the so-called “gig economy”, which has made an entire workforce out of people doing home vacation rentals and driving for companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates.

Blum decided to capitalise on the busy winter travel season in Arizona to help make ends meet after she stopped getting paid for her Government contract work as a lawyer in immigration court in Tucson. She said she has no choice but to continue to work unpaid because she has clients who are depending on her, some of whom are detained or have court hearings.

But she also has bills: her Arizona state bar dues, malpractice insurance, and a more than US$500 phone bill for the past two months because she uses her phone so heavily for work. Blum has been tapping every source she can to keep herself afloat — even her high school – and college-aged children — and is even thinking about driving for Uber and Lyft as well.

“So after working in court all day I'm going to go home and get the room super clean because they're arriving this evening,” she said of her Airbnb renters.

“I have a young man who's visiting town to do some biking, and he's going to come tomorrow and stay a week,” she added. “I'm thrilled because that means immediate money. Once they check in, the next day there's some money in my account.”

The shutdown is occurring against the backdrop of a strong economy that has millions of open jobs, along with ample opportunities to pick up Uber and Lyft shifts.

The labour department reported that employers posted 6.9 million jobs in November, the latest figures available. That's not far from the record high of 7.3 million reached in August.

Roughly 8,700 Uber driver positions are advertised nationwide on the SnagAJob website, while Lyft advertises about 3,000.

But the gig economy doesn't pay all that well — something the furloughed Government workers are finding out.

Pay for such workers has declined over the past two years and they are earning a growing share of their income elsewhere, a recent study found. Most Americans who earn income through online platforms do so for only a few months each year, according to the study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Chris George, 48, of Hemet, California, is furloughed from his job as a forestry technician supervisor for the US Department of Agriculture forest service. He's been driving for Lyft but has only been averaging about US$10 for every hour he drives. Paying for gas then eats into whatever money he has made.

He just got word that he'll be getting US$450 in weekly unemployment benefits, but hadn't received any money as of Monday. In the meantime, he's taking handyman or other odd jobs wherever he can.

“I've just been doing side jobs when they come along,” he said Monday. “I had two last week, and I don't know what this week's going to bring.”

George Jankowski is among those hunting around for cash. He's getting a US$100 weekly unemployment cheque, but that's barely enough to pay for food and gas, he said.

On Monday, he made US$30 helping a friend move out of a third-floor apartment in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Jankowski is furloughed from a USDA call centre and does not expect to get back pay because his job is part-time and hourly.

Jankowski, an air force veteran, calls the situation “gruelling”.

“It's embarrassing to ask for money to pay bills or ask to borrow money to, you know, eat,” he said.


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