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Gig Worker Barely Scraping By In Imperial Valley

Juan Hernandez is trying to make a living in the Imperial Valley by driving f...

Photo by Amita Sharma

Above: Juan Hernandez is trying to make a living in the Imperial Valley by driving for Lyft and working at Lowe’s, Aug. 6, 2019.

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Amid high unemployment and hot weather, local workers are trying to patch together a living in the “gig” economy.

Aired: September 9, 2019 | Transcript

Sweat lined Lyft driver Juan Hernandez’s upper lip on an oppressively hot morning recently in Imperial County’s El Centro.

“Let’s see what the schedule is right now,” said Hernandez as he checked his phone for his next pickup.

The 21-year-old accounting student became a Lyft driver only six days earlier.

Tens of thousands of Californians, like Hernandez, stitch together a living doing contract work with multiple employers without the benefits of most full-time workers.

State lawmakers want to change that through Assembly Bill 5. It was recently approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and faces a vote by the state Senate before the end of the legislative session Sept. 13. The governor would be required to sign it within a month.

If the bill passes, contract workers would become full employees of their companies and be entitled to benefits like pensions and healthcare insurance.

Hernandez earns $800 a month working part time at Lowe’s Home Improvement. That income combined with the $300 his pregnant girlfriend brings home from working as a McDonald’s cashier isn’t enough for the budding family.

But so far, Hernandez is unimpressed with Lyft’s money-making potential.

Reported by Amita Sharma , Video by Roland Lizarondo, Matthew Bowler

“I can travel from El Centro to Brawley, drop someone off, and they only pay me three bucks, and that’s like 20 miles wasted,” Hernandez said.

Rideshare drivers in the area say many of the region’s residents prefer using cash over credit cards, a required payment method for Uber and Lyft. If people there need private transportation, they call taxis.

As Hernandez drove through the valley’s dusty land dotted by huge farms, track homes and big box stores, he said he thinks about quitting the Lyft job.

But he always stops himself.

“With the Imperial Valley lacking better and greater opportunities, I mean this is the only opportunity I can get,” he said.

At 18.7 percent, Imperial Valley has the highest unemployment rate in California and one of the highest in the country. Statewide the unemployment rate is at 4 percent.

Photo by Amita Sharma

Imperial Valley is trying to diversify its mostly agricultural economy to boost job creation and tax revenue, July 23, 2019.

The county’s boosters argue that figure isn’t as dire as it appears and is reflective of its largely agricultural economy. The valley’s vegetable, citrus, and date crops primarily grow in the winter, creating seasonal unemployment.

“We’re at our highest and then that completely flips in the wintertime,” said Tim Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation.

But he said he hasn’t seen the unemployment rate budge out of the double digits.

“The lowest I’ve ever seen is about 12 percent,” Kelly said.

He said he’s working to bring more good jobs by pitching the area to investors and companies. His biggest asset?

“We’re in California,” Kelly said. “Everybody wants to be in California.”

He doesn’t view Imperial Valley’s triple-digit weather four months out of the year as a barrier to becoming an economic player.

“Phoenix, Palm Springs and Las Vegas...these are areas that have similar weather and people go there,” Kelly said. “We need to market this place.”

He said there’s plenty to market.

“We have land, competitively priced,” Kelly said. “We have water, at the lowest price in the United States. We have the lowest cost electricity. We have a labor force that’s ready and willing to work. And when you look at housing, Imperial County has very affordable housing.”

A typical home here costs $212,000, compared to $590,000 in San Diego and $611,420 in the state. A new luxury home in Imperial Valley with four bedrooms and three baths is selling in the $350,000 range. Even that is sticker shock in reverse for San Diegans who might look to the Imperial Valley to buy homes.

“They're dumbfounded on the difference in price,” said Michelle Hollinger, vice president of marketing and sales for Victoria Homes.

Still, The median household income in Imperial Valley is $44,000. And gig workers like Hernandez, driving for Lyft, aren’t even coming close to that figure.

“There are questions about the quality of these [gig] jobs in many communities and how much people are actually making,” said public administration professor Kimberly Collins of Calstate San Bernardino, who has studied the Imperial Valley’s economy. “Are they really good jobs?”

She echoed the statewide debate over gig work.

“The other side of the coin they are jobs. It is a way for

people to make a little bit more money, to supplement incomes. It’s one piece of the puzzle.”

Collins agrees with Kelly, the Economic Development Corporations CEO, that the valley needs to diversify and grow the economy.

The county aspires to be a renewable energy hub. It’s already a leader in geothermal, solar and wind energy.

“That’s going to continue to grow but they don’t hire a lot of people,” Collins said.

“Once you build out the solar plant or once you build out the geothermal plant, they don’t have a huge staff,” Collins said.

Photo by Amita Sharma

Imperial Valley is hoping to become a renewable energy hub and is already a leader in wind, solar and geothermal energy, Aug. 6, 2019.

She said there is scope for testing new modes of transportation in the valley and building on its economic ties to neighboring Mexicali.

But Collins said the Imperial Valley’s downsides remain hurdles.

“It’s in this very corner of California,” Collins said. “It’s very hot down here. It’s very flat. It’s not always visually appealing.”

That’s partly why Lyft driver Juan Hernandez said he eventually wants to move away from the Imperial Valley, where he was born.

Still, he believes he’s better off than his grandparents who used to pick vegetables in the valley’s fields.

And he does see the economy slowly changing for the better in the Imperial Valley. But he added a caveat.

“For people like me working minimum wage jobs, it’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s a real struggle here.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.

Logo for Cal Dream project The California Dream Project is a statewide collaboration focused on issues of economic opportunity, quality-of-life, and the future of the California Dream. Partner organizations include CALmatters, Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC, and KQED.

Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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