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Shoveling snow, walking dogs: Furloughed workers turn to odd jobs, gig economy

People have turned to Craigslist, GoFundMe, ride-hailing companies and friends to help make ends meet.

WASHINGTON — When the nation’s capital was hit by almost a foot of snow this past weekend, Nick Elger saw a chance to make a buck.

Elger, 28, usually spends his days working for the Environmental Protection Agency, but he’s one of nearly 400,000 furloughed employees out of work during what’s become America’s longest government shutdown.

“I’ve been getting stir crazy just sitting at home,” Elger said. “So I figured in the first few weeks I would just post some things on Craigslist.”

Elger’s offer: $20 an hour for snow removal, a reasonable rate considering he has more than 20 years of experience at it growing up on a ranch in Wisconsin. But with few responses, he’s readying other options. He plans to try D.C.-area bars like The Passenger, which recently invited furloughed workers with serving experience to make a little extra cash.

“If I don’t get any hits from Craigslist this week, I’ll reach out to local bars and restaurants,” Elger said. “I have some serving and bartending experience, so I’ll go around and ask if they need any help.”

Elger, like the other government employees and contractors that spoke with NBC News, clarified that his comments were his personal views and not meant to represent or reflect on his agency.

Roughly 800,000 federal employees have yet to receive paychecks this month, and thousands of others, including contractors and service workers, are also facing financial burdens in light of the shutdown. Many, like Elger, are turning to Craigslist, pursuing odd jobs or entering the gig economy — the growing market led by the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, which offer temporary employment and freelance work.

Kirstin Safakas, 31, a Chicago-based furloughed Environmental Protection Agency community involvement coordinator, turned to the ride-sharing app Via after she couldn’t defer her mortgage payment of $2,700 on her newly-purchased single family home.

“I’m nervous that there doesn’t seem to be any end to it on the horizon," Safakas said.

Driving on Via provided some relief, through she still had to dip into some savings.

“The fact that at least we have some income coming in is a lot less stressful than it is for other people that are by themselves,” she said.

Image: Jack Lyons
Jack Lyons, a contractor with NASA, in his workshop in Madison, Alabama, on Jan. 8, 2019. He's spending the furlough on a side business making props for marching bands.David Goldman / AP

Brooks Mitchell, 29, a contractor from Boulder, Colorado, is in a similar predicament. Mitchell, whose work is funded by now-stalled grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation, and his wife were married in October. They are dipping into the money they received from friends and family while he considers his options.

“I’m looking at dog-walking, I’m looking at baby-sitting, I’m looking at doing any freelance gig work I can,” Mitchell said, adding that he also plans to look at Uber, Lyft and TaskRabbit.

“The worst case scenario if this goes on for two or three more weeks, I’ll probably look at finding another full-time job, which is unfortunate because I really love my job,” Mitchell said.

NBC News contacted more than 10 on-demand labor platforms, and the majority did not report an influx of people seeking work since the shutdown began. Many said it’s simply too early to detect any relevant patterns.

Still, news reports have chronicled government workers and contractors around the country turning to odd jobs. In Fresno, California, Vice News rode along with a federal prison officer who had turned to driving for Uber. In Tuscon, Arizona, The Associated Press spoke to a woman who rented out a room on Airbnb. Two sisters in Maryland are selling cheesecakes, according to local ABC affiliate WJLA.

Out-of-work government employees have also been targeted on social media with recruitment efforts from gig economy companies. Other workers have turned to the crowd-funding platform GoFundMe with pleas for donations.

R.J. Stieger, 29, a furloughed employee who lives outside Washington, said he was working at a friend’s vinegar-making business and living off an emergency fund, noting he was one of the lucky ones.

“I’m fortunate to have an emergency fund so the side gig is more to keep me from getting cabin fever, but I know a number of people are picking up Uber or doing Fiverr things and really finding any way to make ends meet,” he said, referring to the freelancer platform.

Washington residents have also posted anecdotal messages on social media about encountering government workers who had turned to ride-hailing apps during the shutdown.

Arun Sundararajan, New York University professor of business and author of “The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism,” said this ability to smooth over income volatility by using platform-based gig work is particularly important for the U.S. economy.

“If we look at the past, a lot of the growth of the gig economy about 10 years ago was a consequence of weak job numbers and the recession,” Sundararajan said. “So I think it’s well accepted that during times of economic downturn, whether it’s nationwide or within a particular sector, people do turn at increasing rates to the gig economy to try and make ends meet.”

While the gig economy is meant to provide people with the ability to easily find work, the system also has its limits. Most companies take time to approve new employees and require background checks — which could take longer to complete as the government’s E-Verify system is closed during the shutdown. People must own or rent cars to drive for ride-sharing apps, and even without sign-up fees, the work can be costly.

An influx of new applicants can also mean that workers who depend on gig economy jobs for a living can be hit by declining wages. Frank Martin, who drives for Uber in Chicago, said he found it “wildly coincidental” that there have been more drivers on the road since the start of the government shutdown.

In the past week, Martin said he endured two days where he’s worked at a loss.

Earnings for ride-hailing drivers have declined in recent years, according to a study from JPMorgan Chase, which found that more drivers were the main cause.

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“There are literally double the amount of ride-share drivers in the airport queue,” Martin said. “There are hundreds of cars there during peak times. It causes frustration and sometimes physical confrontation.”

Randy, 42, an out-of-work contractor in the Washington area, said he was applying for jobs and living off savings while looking for odd jobs. He asked that his last name not be used because he was worried about gaining future employment.

The gig economy, he noted, didn’t offer him much. Without a car, he can’t drive and the broader economic slowdown in the region has meant most people aren’t looking for as much part-time labor.

“Around here there’s really not all that much, especially if you don’t have a car or a truck, because everyone’s furloughed so no one’s going to work,” he said. “So the gig economy at least for me hasn’t been very productive because everyone’s been able to do it themselves or they can’t afford to pay someone to do it.”

Rima Abdelkader and Jason Abbruzzese contributed reporting.