- Associated Press - Friday, September 11, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - On most nights, there’s a stranger sleeping in the basement of Heather Brown’s home in Lafayette Square. At $59 a night, those visitors represent a sizable chunk of Brown’s monthly income.

They also put her smack in the middle of the so-called “gig economy,” a term used to describe a freelance employment system in which people support themselves with side gigs arranged through websites and smartphone apps.

It’s not new. But the character of the movement has changed dramatically in recent years, in part because of the growing popularity of businesses such as Uber, the ride-hailing service that’s trying to gain a toehold in St. Louis, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/1NbLEWd ) reported.

Since getting divorced last year, Brown has been picking up extra money through Airbnb, which connects travelers with people willing to rent out rooms in their homes. And it’s significant enough that it was on Brown’s shopping list earlier in the year when she was looking for a new place to live.

“I picked the house specifically because I thought it would be good for Airbnb,” said Brown, who also works about 20 hours a week from home for a software firm.

It’s not exactly the traditional work model. And it’s one that some labor experts find troubling. But clearly, this sort of cobbled-together livelihood brings with it a flexibility that’s difficult to price.

For Brown, it means more time with her young daughter and a chance to work on her dream of being a painter.

“It would have to be a whole lot of money for me to take a regular job,” Brown said.

There is a challenge in assessing the gig economy in that no one really knows how prevalent it is. There’s been little in the way of government data to suggest a dramatic rise in the number of people who say they are self-employed or working multiple jobs. But some observers say the government’s data collection isn’t designed to reflect this piecemeal approach to earning a living. They predict that half of U.S. jobs could eventually fall into this category.

And while the idea of freelancing may be ancient, the technology around it is decidedly new.

The Heather Browns of the world have always had the freedom to rent out a room for the night. But the explosion of sites such as Airbnb has made it so much easier for them to find eager travelers.

“The big difference is the Internet. It allows the connections to be made in a more efficient way,” said Haim Mano, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The most obvious example of this is Uber, the ride-hailing service that’s seeking permission from regulators to begin operations in St. Louis.

The fast-growing service uses tens of thousands of what it calls partner drivers to shuttle customers around the cities in which it operates. The drivers work when they want, while Uber grabs a percentage of every fare.

It’s an ideal setup for Robert Lloyd Cook, a local musician who started working for Uber in Illinois in April.

He drives anywhere from five to 35 hours a week, based on his erratic performance schedule.

“It’s really hard to have a normal job,” Cook said. “I might have a happy hour gig one day. The next, I’ll be playing at a wedding.”

But while Uber has sort of defined this freelance movement, the company is not alone. Everyone wants to be the Uber of something these days.

There’s Washio for getting your clothes laundered. Need help with a writing or design project? Try Fiverr. TaskRabbit will find someone to assemble furniture, clean a kitchen or plan a party.

And some of these companies were here long before Uber showed up.

Among them is Tutor.com, a site that offers thousands of academic experts, librarians and professionals for one-on-one tutoring sessions.

Antoinette Orlando is a St. Louis-based tutor specializing in college essays, writing and English grammar. She’s been working for the service for a year, while also doing some freelance tutoring and baby-sitting on the side.

The 1999 UMSL graduate spent 10 years working for a local bank before deciding she wanted to get away from a traditional job. She started dabbling in different things, even delivering phone books at one point.

“It’s not that I don’t want the responsibility of a full-time job,” she said. “But I like the idea of seeing different parts of life.”

One of the most often cited reasons for pursuing a freelance career is the flexibility that comes with it. But for many people, it’s a chance to break away from the traditional employer-employee relationship.

In that sense, it could almost be seen as a natural reaction to an evolving workplace, said Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of strategy at Washington University’s Olin Business School.

“It’s a trend that’s been going on for a long time, but it’s been escalated,” Pierce said.

Today’s young people have watched their parents deal with the pressures and anxiety of job insecurity at a time when companies show little in the way of loyalty to their workers. They see no reason to believe that dynamic will ever change, so they’re looking for a diversity of income sources.

“Millennials are coming into the job market with that expectation,” Pierce said.

But it’s not just young people taking part in the gig economy. Older workers are using it to supplement retirement income, while displaced workers see it as a refuge of sorts while searching for regular employment.

But none of this necessarily means it’s a good thing in the long run, said Jerry Davis, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan. It’s a subject Davis is writing about in his forthcoming book, “The Vanishing American Corporation: Navigating the Hazards of a New Economy.”

“I see the prospect of some really terrible things in the labor market,” Davis said.

It’s easy to see why companies love the model. They gain tremendous flexibility in terms of workforce management (you don’t have to lay off independent contractors) and reduce labor costs by not having to provide health care and other benefits. But those things come with a cost.

Among them is the way certain responsibilities - income tax, retirement plans, Social Security tax and workers’ compensation insurance - shift from the employer to the worker.

“Employers play a kind of parent or big brother role,” said Marie Carlie, a tax partner in the St. Louis office of BDO USA.

As independent contractors, workers need to plan ahead and set aside money for these things or risk a financial crisis down the road.

“To avoid surprises at the end of the year, they need to know from day one what they’ll have to do,” she said.

Davis, the professor, also worries that more companies will make the switch to this type of freelance system - bidding out shifts (even at places such as Walmart) to so-called independent contractors. Workers, in his scenario, could find themselves bidding against each other for shifts, effectively pushing down their own wages.

There may also be fewer opportunities for advancement or ways to make more money - other than simply working more hours. Gone will be the tale of the former mailroom clerk working his or her way up to the executive offices.

“In the gig economy, there’s nowhere to go,” Davis said.

There’s still, however, much to be decided in this realm.

Already the freelance model is being tested by regulators around the nation. In California, for example, some drivers for Uber and competitor Lyft are suing the companies, claiming they should be treated as employees. And labor boards in California and Florida have issued rulings in favor of drivers claiming employee status.

Lawsuits also have been filed against Washio, Postmates, Instacart and Shyp challenging the contractor status of workers.

The companies also can run into obstacles in the cities in which they want to operate. Such is the case in St. Louis, where the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission has refused to sanction Uber. Likewise, Maplewood recently voted to forbid residents from renting rooms through Airbnb.

What could be lost in the looming legal challenges is the fact that many of these freelancers look at their gigs as little more than a way to make money doing something they enjoy.

Such is the case with Mitch Boeh, a mechanical engineer with a four-bedroom house near Forest Park. Since the start of the year, he has been renting out two of those rooms through Airbnb. Business has been steady, with more than 50 nights booked last month.

The extra money is nice. But it’s not what drives Boeh, who enjoys the energy it brings to his home. “There will be people coming and going from all walks of life,” Boeh said. “I appreciate the hustle and bustle it provides.”

Even when the experiences are, as he puts it, unique. Like the woman who climbed in a back window after managing to lock herself out of the house. And who later left the shower running for more than an hour after she broke it. “They just kind of add to the flavor of it all,” he said.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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