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Valley residents embrace gig economy, either to make ends meet or make sure they overlap

James Beach, who drives for Uber and Lyft on the side, has a Hyundai Equus that he uses exclusively for rides. The luxury car has a 430-horsepower engine and back seats that can be heated, cooled or reclined.
James Beach, who drives for Uber and Lyft on the side, has a Hyundai Equus that he uses exclusively for rides. The luxury car has a 430-horsepower engine and back seats that can be heated, cooled or reclined. For the Statesman

When speaking with ride-share drivers, the conversation inevitably turns to vomit.

James Beach has driven for Uber and Lyft since February 2017, racking up more than 3,000 rides. He used to start his Friday and Saturday nights around 8-9 p.m. and stay out until 3 a.m. But he’s since shifted, working mostly from 5 p.m. to midnight to avoid the drunkest passengers — because he was tired of people throwing up in his car.

He can list his vomit tally: “Three times where it actually landed in the car, probably 8 or 10 times altogether. Usually they were lucky enough to get most of it outside.”

Beach is among thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers transporting people in their own cars on their own schedules across Idaho. He’s also among the millions of individuals across the country who are part of the “gig economy,” making money through independent, sometimes short-term projects or tasks. Three in 10 American adults participated in some form of gig work during 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households” released this year. That number was up slightly from the year before.

The definition of a gig encompasses everything from ride-share driving or selling items online to child care, cleaning houses or flea market sales. The federal report found that online activities were the most common – 16 percent of American adults have that kind of gig.

For many people, these are very much part-time. The typical individual working in the gig economy spent just 5 hours a month on it, according to the report. Nearly 40 percent of gig workers – 12 percent of all American adults – are doing side gigs to supplement income from their main jobs. Another 19 percent say they do it as a hobby or just for fun. But for 16 percent, it’s their primary source of income.

Estimating the size of the gig economy in Idaho can be tricky, as Esther Eke, a regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor, explained in a report. There hasn’t been recent growth in the overall number of Idahoans who work part time (26.5 percent in 2017) or are self-employed (about 12 percent). However, the number of self-employed individuals who operate a very small business with no paid employees – termed “nonemployer establishments” by the Census Bureau – increased by 15 percent in Idaho between 2005 and 2015, according to Eke.

Recently, Eke came across some interesting statistics from Economic Modeling Specialist International. It tracks workers who are counted as proprietors but classify the income as peripheral to their primary employment, such as people with a hobby business. The number of those individuals working in “taxi services” in the Boise area increased nearly 586 percent from 2010 to 2017. In contrast, Eke said, the number of taxi service workers that consider the job their primary source of income has fallen over the same time frame.

Going the ride-share route

Since Uber launched Idaho services in 2015 and Lyft followed in 2016, ride sharing through one or both of the app-based platforms has become an incredibly popular side gig. After signing up, passing background checks and getting vehicle approval, drivers decide when they want to work. The vast majority of Lyft drivers are part time – 93 percent don’t hit 20 hours a week, according to Lyft spokesman Zachary Kizer.

Beach spends an average of 25 hours a week in his car, in addition to his full-time job as a construction safety manager, which takes him all over the Pacific Northwest. Like many drivers, he will often run his Uber and Lyft apps simultaneously until someone hails a ride on one of them. He said Uber tends to keep him busier – in early October, he’d done about 2,275 drives with Uber compared to 1,000 with Lyft.

His teenage daughters enjoy their dad’s extra income, and Beach said he likes the entertainment that comes with driving people. He’s purchased a Hyundai Equus that he uses exclusively for his rides. The luxury car has a 430-horsepower engine and back seats that can be heated, cooled or reclined.

“I do that because it’s fun,” he said. “And I like to see the look on everybody’s face when they get in the car because it’s kind of unexpected.”

For Jason Wells, the motivation was more financial. He started driving for Lyft in September to prepare for a seasonal layoff. His full-time job is delivering sod, and he will be without that source of income from December until February or early March. Although his wife also works full time, Wells wanted extra cash to prepare for Christmas and the winter months.

A newcomer to the area, Wells said he is still figuring out the hot spots around town – he’s learned that other drivers aren’t keen to share that information with their competitors. He will often start at the airport and then work downtown on late weekend nights, and he tries to plan around big events such as concerts at Taco Bell Arena or the Ford Idaho Center. His biggest Lyft payday in his first month was $140 doing 17 rides on a Saturday night.

“Some weeks are good, some weeks are bad,” he said. “Some Fridays are good, some Fridays are just really bad.”

He’s made more money delivering food through the restaurant courier service DoorDash. As it is with Uber or Lyft, drivers pick their own hours and use their own cars. Wells has been working for DoorDash since the summer and tends to do deliveries three or four days a week for two or three hours. He made $961 in September, he said.

Keeping things in perspective

Both Beach and Wells say that although ride sharing is a fine way to make a bit of side income, they would advise against considering it for full-time work.

“While it looks like you’re making some pretty good money, when you add all your expenses, depreciation of your vehicle, wear and tear and maintenance, you’re really not getting very much at all,” Beach said. Those expenses include adding ride-share insurance for your car.

Although Wells says he knows people who make $700 a week regularly working for Uber or Lyft, he’s not sure how many hours they’re putting in. Especially for a household with a single income, he doesn’t think it’s a viable way to make a living. The hours out driving would be hard for someone with a family, he said.

“My 7-year-old cries when I leave to do Lyft because she likes me being at home,” he said. For that reason, he usually waits for his kids to go to bed before heading out.

Kym Couch, who drives for both Uber and Lyft, said full-time work with the apps might be possible in other cities, but she wouldn’t recommend it in Boise. However, she notes that it can be a good step back into the workforce for previously stay-at-home parents. The flexible hours can also be a plus for individuals with health issues who might not have consistent schedules, she said.

Hobbies that pay

Couch has a full-time job in IT at Boise State University, and she drives only about 20 hours a month for Uber and Lyft. But she’s found a way to combine that with another side gig: She makes YouTube videos about it. Couch has created YouTube content since high school, and she discovered a new niche when she started searching for ride-share advice videos online. Though many contained good information, she said, it took way too long to get to it.

“As soon as I started driving, I started making videos to help other drivers so they could get that information in a more consumable way,” she said.

They’re popular. One video on her “munchkym” channel, called “Lyft/Uber: Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Driving,” has more than 300,000 views. Couch makes money through YouTube ad views, and Uber or Lyft referral codes.

She also referees soccer and Quidditch – a sport based on the fictional game from the Harry Potter series – as side jobs. The best hobbies are the ones that pay, she said. While her regular income mostly covers bills, she uses the money from her gigs on the things she really wants to do, like a recent trip to Italy or saving for a house.

But the key to all side gigs, Couch said, is that it can’t just be about the money. You have to pick something you actually enjoy doing.

“It’s going to be about finding something that doesn’t feel as much like work,” she said. “When you’re in charge of yourself, you have to actually want to do it.”

That’s what’s often unique about side gigs, explained Brian Wiley, a financial adviser at Tree City Advisors.

“It’s no different than somebody else just going and getting a second job, except a lot of times these second jobs are more a job of passion,” he said. “They go out and control their own schedule.”

Jennifer Pinkerton started working for an online transcription service for side income, in part because it was something she could do in the middle of the night wearing her pajamas. It can be a lot of work, with accuracy and time metrics to meet, but she gets to pick the content she transcribes. She takes only jobs that interest her – standouts have included a class on Greek history and content for a horror film director.

She said she spends about 10 to 20 hours a week on transcription, making a couple hundred dollars every couple of months.

“It fuels my coffee habit,” she said. “I really don’t make enough money to do a whole let else with it.”

Word of mouth

Pinkerton, whose full-time job is with the state, also makes a bit of money helping people refine their resumes and other job application materials. It’s something she first did to help someone she knew, and then he started recommending her to others.

That’s her advice to anyone looking for a side gig.

“Figure out what you’re good at and find somebody who needs that help,” she said. “Because there’s going to be somebody. There always is.”

That’s how Ashley Devine found herself pet-sitting four different sets of animals at one point over the summer, on top of her full-time job as an animal care attendant at the Idaho Humane Society. She’s a go-to for friends who have pets with specific medical needs – including, recently, a corgi in a wheelchair – because they can trust her to handle the extra care.

Devine initially tried advertising her services on Rover, an online marketplace for pet-sitters and dog-walkers. Though she has a friend in Seattle who at one time made her full income through Rover gigs, Devine didn’t find the same opportunities in the Treasure Valley market.

“There are more people looking for work on there than there are actual people looking for their animals to be watched,” she said.

But once friends started spreading word of her services, Devine found herself with plenty of pet-sitting work, especially in the summer and around the holidays. She’s had to learn to say no sometimes – she has two dogs of her own and works 10-hour days at the Idaho Humane Society. But she also gets three-day weekends and appreciates the flexibility of a side gig rather than a formal part-time job.

“I feel like for me I’m living comfortably enough to not overcompensate for money,” she said.

Modeling money

Occasionally, a side gig can turn quite profitable. Phil Bode started modeling for BSU art classes after seeing a post on the university’s job website. He was already on campus, teaching and tutoring, so he decided he might as well sign up.

He quickly found a strategy for standing nude — yes, nude — in a room full of artists: He’d remove his glasses so he couldn’t see anyone looking at him.

“There’s no nervousness if all you’re seeing is a blur,” he said. “I might as well be there alone.”

He would get paid hourly for formal classes, or pose for drop-in sessions and make however much participants were willing to contribute — sometimes up to $60 or $70. But the real money came when he started working for private artists, who would pay him a good portion of their earnings if their work was accepted into a gallery. It came out to the equivalent of $200 an hour at one point, he said.

“Even though it started out as a side gig, I was making far more modeling than I was as a tutor,” he said.

Though he hasn’t done it recently, he said modeling for artists is still the best-paying job he’s ever had. And no, he didn’t keep any souvenirs from those jobs.

“Everyone always asks me if I ever took home drawings,” he said. “Absolutely not.”