The new gig economy helps cash-strapped workers survive

EVERYDAY HUSTLE: Like many in Asheville, Sarajane Case finds ways to make a living through several different income streams: photography, blogging, marketing and business consulting. Photo courtesy of Sarajane Case

On any given day, Sarajane Case may be juggling a number of jobs: photographer, business consultant, social media marketer and blogger. “Today’s a good example,” she says. “This morning I wrote a blog. I’m leaving right now to do a photo shoot with Persona,” the social media marketing company she co-founded in Asheville. “We’ll follow that up with a planning session for a new account, and then I’ll write a newsletter for my consulting business in the afternoon. Then I follow that up with a family portrait session around 3:30.”

Case estimates that her online presence generates roughly 70 percent of her business; the internet is her sole marketing tool. Some of her clients are locally based, but just as many are scattered far and wide (including the Netherlands and Australia). “I honestly wouldn’t be in business without the internet,” she says. “Not in the same way.”

Arne L. Kalleberg, Kenan Distinguished Professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill, says Case is a member of the “gig economy,” though he’s quick to point out that neither the term nor the concept is new. It’s always been the case that many people have worked multiple jobs in order to survive. “We’ve had gigs forever,” notes Kalleberg. “What I think is distinctive about [the current avatar] is the use of technology to connect people that otherwise would not be connected.”

It’s hard to say how big this internet-based gig economy really is, he says. A 2016 study titled ‘The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015,” by economics professors Lawrence Katz of Harvard and Alan Krueger of Princeton, estimates that as of 2015, 15.8 percent of the entire working population was engaged in “alternative work arrangements” such as temporary employment agencies, contract work or freelancing — and about 0.5 percent was providing services via online platforms such as Task Rabbit and Uber. But these people weren’t necessarily doing multiple jobs at the same time.

In Asheville, where conventional full-time jobs can be hard to come by, some folks see their multiple endeavors as a way to survive. Others see “side hustles” as a means to feed the soul while supplementing their principal income stream. But whatever you choose to call it, this patchwork approach gives many residents a degree of financial security they couldn’t otherwise find here. And while most of those who spoke with Xpress say they end up averaging 50-60 hours a week, they like the flexibility and freedom the arrangement offers.

Feast or famine

In her busiest weeks, Emily Trimnal may work 75 hours. Her main source of income is freelance web development. Other paying gigs include social media management and blogging. Then there’s the miscellaneous stuff — pet sitting, selling items at the flea market and “anything else where there’s a little money to be made,” she reveals.

Trimnal, 27, says the gig economy provides a survival mechanism at a time when “everything has gotten so expensive.” In addition, several health issues, including migraines and a spinal cord injury, make it impossible for her to manage a more traditional 9-to-5 job. “Even though I work more hours doing multiple jobs, at least I can have the flexibility to be able to monitor how I’m doing,” she explains.

But Trimnal isn’t putting in 75 hours every week: There’s a sometimes predictable ebb and flow to her schedule. Around the holidays, for example, she knows that her web design work will probably slow down, because businesses are typically more interested in putting their money into advertising. So she focuses more on blogging and other gigs.

And though her various income streams generally achieve an overall financial balance, Trimnal stresses that in the gig economy, no paycheck is guaranteed: At times, it can be “feast or famine.”

A foot in both worlds

DELIVERYMAN BY DAY, BOOK DEALER BY NIGHT: Lev Habif keeps busy working for FedEx and running his own online business. Photo by Celia Tabitha Photography
DELIVERYMAN BY DAY, BOOK DEALER BY NIGHT: Lev Habif keeps busy working for FedEx and running his own online business. Photo by Celia Tabitha Photography

Others in the gig economy choose to maintain a steady paycheck while pursuing their entrepreneurial efforts. Lev Habif, 37, has been with FedEx for 12 years. He also sells used books and other goods online, and over the years, his sales have gradually increased. “I thought, if I went full force, I could make it work,” he says. “So I kept building up my inventory, doing a lot of research [and] reading other people’s success stories.”

In 2009, Habif went part time at FedEx; with a wife and child, he couldn’t afford to quit and lose his company-provided health insurance. His mornings are spent delivering packages, to the tune of about 17 hours per week. But he clocks another 40-50 hours a week finding inventory for his online store, packing and shipping items, adjusting listings, researching and ordering.

Over the years, Habif has developed an acute sense of the online market cycle. “At the beginning of school, book prices shoot up almost 50 percent,” he says. “Two weeks later, prices drop. The same goes with toys. Thanksgiving through the end of the year, prices go up 30 percent; then, a week after the new year, prices are rock bottom. You got to get rid of stuff when it’s hot.”

Like Trimnal, he does his best to surf the seasonal fluctuations. “February and March are slow,” he notes. “But you have to go with the ebb and flow.”

Work/life balance

“The most challenging part of multiple jobs for me is definitely the work/life balance,” says Andrea Kulish, 43. “Although my planner is full and can look like a mess, I always meet my deadlines,” the artist, graphic designer and teacher continues. But she finds it hard “to shut off the work part of my thinking and take time off.”

FINDING A BALANCE : In the future, Sarah Snyder would like to focus exclusively on photography. "But I really enjoy working at a restaurant," she says. "Or working in bakeries in general." Photo by Chelsea Bollhoefer
FINDING A BALANCE : In the future, Sarah Snyder would like to focus exclusively on photography. “But I really enjoy working at a restaurant,” she says. “Or working in bakeries in general.” Photo by Chelsea Bollhoefer

Others share similar stories. Sarah Snyder, 28, is a pastry chef at Rhubarb, a freelance photographer, a photography assistant and occasionally fills in at Home Free Bagels. “I run a little bit off of the adrenaline of having a whole bunch of work,” she admits. “Sometimes, my friendships may suffer from working too much, but in another sense, it’s gotten me more connections.”

Julia Staines, 25, says that by week’s end she often feels burned out, due to both the lack of free time and insufficient sleep. Staines works full time as the loan support manager at Mountain BizWorks. She puts in another 12 hours a week as a cashier at Whole Foods and also makes wire-wrapped jewelry that she sells online and at music festivals. “Online sales are extremely important to my side hustle, because I don’t have time to hustle in person and manage my full-time and part-time jobs,” she explains. “It’s more time-efficient to post something online and wait for it be to sold, rather than to vend at local shows or markets.”

Following your passion

Google the phrase “side hustle,” and you’ll get countless links to articles listing the best or easiest such undertakings. But if you Google “define side hustle” (or, for that matter, “define gig economy”), you’ll quickly see how little agreement there is concerning what either term actually means.

There’s plenty of overlap. Both are time-consuming, require organization and self-discipline, and often involve some level of entrepreneurship. The biggest distinction seems to be financial. Side hustles are often passion projects: Money is part of the picture, but not the driving force. Staines, for example, says that even if her jewelry didn’t sell, she’d keep making it for the creative outlet it provides. Others echo that sentiment.

John Almaguer, 33, earns his living as a glassblower in the River Arts District. Making, marketing and shipping glass, plus connecting with galleries, consumes much of his regular 40-hour week. But Almaguer also has a side hustle: offering guided tours of the district.

He started the business this summer, prompted not by financial need but by the desire to connect with others. “I’m a real relationship person,” he explains. “The tours are fun for me.”

Almaguer considers his side hustle a natural product of the same creative energy that fuels his glassblowing. “A lot of entrepreneurs are creative people,” he says. “They enjoy the thrill. … You’ve got this idea, this vision, that you think is fun and exciting and that makes you come alive, and you do it and you happen to be able to make some money from it.”

THE SIDE HUSTLE: John Almaguer makes his living as a glassblower, but offers guided tours through the River Arts District, as his side hustle. Photo courtesy of John Almaguer
ROLLING WITH IT: John Almaguer makes his living as a glassblower, but offers guided tours through the River Arts District, as his side hustle. Photo courtesy of John Almaguer

Hedging bets

Allen Brasington, 44, has a full-time job managing a staffing agency; he’s on call 24 hours a day. Before landing the position, though, he worked as a studio assistant for local artist Jonas Gerard. “That gig got me through a lot of weeks early on,” remembers Brasington, who came to Asheville in 2008. A former auctioneer and real estate agent in South Carolina, he saw his livelihood crash when the recession hit.

And despite his now much busier schedule, Brasington still works 15-20 hours a week for Gerard. Friendship is one factor: “It’s a loyalty thing,” he says.

But Brasington hasn’t forgotten that a mere three years ago, the gallery work was providing essential income. He also serves as an auctioneer for fundraisers, which keeps him involved with the greater community. “I live on the edge of downtown; I have a house. It takes something extra to do that,” he points out. And though these gigs now give him “fun money,” they’re also a way of hedging his bets while helping him make ends meet and then some.

As a personnel manager, Brasington is acutely aware of the challenges posed by the high cost of housing in Asheville, which has made it harder for him to fill jobs. “Folks can’t afford to live close in,” he notes. “And when you’re making $9.50-$10.50 an hour, it’s hard to justify driving in from Candler or Black Mountain or Mars Hill.”

Making a dent

A 2015 Bowen National Research study prepared for the city’s Community & Economic Development Department defines cost-burdened households as those “paying over 30 percent of their income toward housing costs”; severely cost-burdened households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Among renters, the report continues, 44.2 percent are cost-burdened, and 20.7 percent are severely cost-burdened. The study also notes that 20.4 percent of Asheville’s population lives in poverty.

“Our role is really in addressing the disparities between our low wages and high cost of living,” community development manager Heather Dillashaw explains. “We invest the funds we have with partners in the community that are doing work to help make a dent in that.”

The city, she says, has $400,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds that goes to such organizations as Green Opportunities, Mountain BizWorks, the Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., the Carolina Small Business Center and Bountiful Cities. “Agencies like that are working to help low-wealth or no-wealth entrepreneurs create their own enterprise,” says Dillashaw.

She also cites line items in the 2016-17 budget as other ways the city is working to improve wages. A $320,000 study, for example, will “evaluate current business and hiring practices in order to identify areas that should be changed or improved,” according to the city’s website. Another $75,000 is earmarked for a diagnostic evaluation of local real estate.

Asheville, says Dillashaw, isn’t the only city with low-wage workers. But “We tend to be unique in that our cost of living is so astronomical in comparison to our average wage.”

Something for everybody

Michael Dunn, a doctoral candidate at UNC Chapel Hill, recently co-authored an article with Kalleberg titled “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs in the Gig Economy.” One of the phenomenon’s major benefits, says Dunn, is that it “removes spatial constraints that local labor markets typically had over workers.” Thanks to the internet, he maintains, some people whose jobs used to require them to live in cities can now move to rural areas with a lower cost of living. “The most amazing part of what I run into,” he says, “is the incredible diversity” of people working in the gig economy, “and the reasons why they’re doing it: There’s something for everybody.”

Nonetheless, Dunn isn’t making any predictions about the gig economy’s future. “The unknown is how well the economy bounces back,” he says. “Would someone rather have a full-time job with benefits? Probably. Has this been a godsend for a lot of people? Probably.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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