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Gig Worker Barely Scraping By In Imperial Valley

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

Speaker 1: 00:00 The imperial valley consistently has the highest unemployment rate in California. The online gig economy driving for Uber and Lyft might seem like a solution for workers facing few job prospects and traditionally low wages in this agricultural valley. As part of our California Dream Collaboration KPBS as Amica Sharma reports on how much of a boost gig jobs are providing drivers in the valley.

Speaker 2: 00:31 Lyft driver, Juan Hernandez is a few rides into his shift. All right. Just keep driving around until someone messages me or I tell I get a notification. The 21 year olds accounting students started this job only six days earlier that I get to meet new people. He spoke to me in a mall parking lot. I love giving rides, I guess, but the work isn't bringing in much income. Sometimes I could travel from El Centro to Brawley, drop someone off and they only pay me three bucks and that's like 20 miles wasted. Hernandez turned to Lyft driving as one way to patch together a livable monthly income. The $800 he earns each month working part time at Lowe's combined with the $300 his pregnant girlfriend makes from working as a McDonald's cashier aren't enough. I got a child support now. It is what it is. He has bigger aspirations.

Speaker 2: 01:23 He wants to be a screenwriter and an accountant, but for now he's driving through this hot, dusty land, dotted by huge forums, tract homes, and big box stores with the Imperial Valley lacking better and greater opportunities. This is the only opportunity I can get. You know, Hernandez, his frustrations reflect the challenges facing the valley's larger economy in the summer months. Unemployment here is nearly 20% but the region's boosters argue that rate isn't as dire as it appears at our highest, and then that completely flips in the winter time. Tim Kelly is the valley's Economic Development Corporation CEO. He says that high unemployment is due to a largely seasonal agricultural economy, but admits he's never seen the unemployment rate budge out of the double digits. He hopes that will change as the valley capitalizes on its biggest asset. We're in California, right? Everybody wants to be in California. Even. He says, if the weather climbs into the triple digits as it can four months out of the year, but he argues there's plenty here to market.

Speaker 2: 02:27 We have land. It's very competitively priced. We have water at the lowest price in the United States. We have the lowest cost electricity rates in California, or we've got 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 costs $212,000 in the county and attractive price for Californians shut out of coastal markets. Imperial Valley aspires to be a renewable energy hub and is already a leader in geothermal, solar and wind energy, but they don't hire a lot of people. Kimberly Collins has studied the valley's economy. She's a public administration professor at Cal State San Bernardino.

Speaker 3: 03:09 Once you build out the solar plant or once you have a geothermal plant working, they don't have a huge staff.

Speaker 2: 03:16 Colin says the imperial valleys. Downsides remain hurdles.

Speaker 3: 03:19 You know, it's in the very corner of California. It's very hot down here. It's very flat. It's not always, you know, visually appealing to be here for

Speaker 2: 03:28 Lyft driver, Juan Hernandez. Those drawbacks may be getting less important. I do see it growing bigger, bigger, and I do see more people coming, but he adds a caveat for people like me working minimum wage jobs is, it's a struggle. It's a real frog here. Even so, Hernandez who was born in Imperial Valley believes he's better off than his grandparents. He used to pick vegetables in the valleys, fields he wants to move, but he says he'd stay if the valley offered more opportunities. In the meantime, he's looking for a third job. Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Amica Sharma. Amit, the welcome. Thank you. It's good to be here. We just heard your story on a Lyft driver in the imperial valley who's trying to cobble together a living through multiple jobs as a way to engage our listeners in the reporting we do. We put out a question asking listeners for their thoughts on the GIG economy.

Speaker 2: 04:24 So what did you hear back? Well, so one of our listeners wrote in and basically said, look, there is no difference between what we today call the Gig economy and what we all for years have called Paul parttime work. To the listeners point, there has always been part time work, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, you know, we'll do little side hustles, little side gigs on the weekend working for neighbors or what have you. Um, and then there are teens who babysit in the neighborhood or wherever and people who mow other people's lawns. That's always gone on. That's correct. But if this person's point is that Gig work is no different than part time work that people have always done for businesses. That's incorrect. I checked in with Ken Jacobs. He has the Center for Labor Research and education at UC Berkeley. He says that there are some key differences. If you work part time for a retail store, the employer pays into social security, the employer pays into unemployment insurance, all of that. What is different about these new labor platforms like Uber and Lyft is that even though the company has the power in the relationship, visa vi the workers, the companies determine the price and how much of that the driver will get. In other words, all the hallmarks of employment. Yet the driver has no right to paid sick leave, meal breaks, rest breaks and workers' comp.

Speaker 1: 06:02 Another of our listener comments was from a person who said he'd worked as an independent contractor for 15 months doing mapping and then he got laid off and was told he could apply again for a job after 90 days. He's and this person said they felt like a broken light bulbs so easily replaced. How common is dispense ability in this work?

Speaker 2: 06:24 It's very common. Again, Ken Jacobs at the Labor Center at Berkeley says that's another challenge for independent contractors who we've discussed so far. There is no job security. They can essentially be deactivated, let go at any time. The other aspect of many of these kinds of workers is that they are subject to customer reviews. They may be doing everything they can to please a customer, but one bad review can lose some business or get them fired. It could be that they encountered a passenger who was drunk or rude or even tried to sexually harass them. And if that's the case, there's very little recourse for these workers.

Speaker 1: 07:07 Now during uh, your feature that we just heard you told us about the struggles of unemployment and low wages in imperial valley, where do most of the jobs come from in Imperial County?

Speaker 2: 07:19 Well, Imperial County is predominantly an agricultural economy. It's about 85% of the economy. So even though people say, look, when we grow stuff here at year round, there is still some seasonal work. So there are people there who are looking for part time work a lot of the time. The gentleman I profiled in the piece that we just heard, he's a college student and he also works at Lowe's and he's looking for a third time job because he can't afford rent and also has his girlfriend is pregnant and so he can't afford paying rent and utilities and car insurance and all of that. And he says that a lot of his friends were doing the same thing. They're working two to three jobs,

Speaker 1: 08:05 as you said, cobbled together an income from the people you spoke with in Imperial County. Is there a feeling that there's sort of a wealth of untapped potential in the area?

Speaker 2: 08:17 That is a huge feeling out there. Um, for the boosters of the Valley of the county, they say, look, we're still in California. People can come and make their dream here. They really want businesses to move there and set up shop. They really want to diversify their economy and they say, look, what's not to love. We've got cheap land and a lot of it we've got water, um, an abundance of it and it's cheap and we've got cheap electricity. Um, you know, and they poopoo questions about the weather. It, it's in the triple digits about four months out of the year and they say Las Vegas is hot four months out of the year. Palm Springs is hot four months out of the year. So why are we any different? They see a lot of potential. Whether that potential ends up ever being tapped is not clear. I mean, you've been covering the financial struggles of Californians for nearly two years now.

Speaker 2: 09:13 How does this discussion that you weave, we just heard in this feature, how does that fit into your coverage? Well, this whole debate over ab five is happening in a state where nearly half of Californians are grappling with poverty. A survey done by the nonpartisan public or religion research institute last year was really telling. It found that 42% of Californians had delayed medical treatment for financial reasons, and about the same number had scaled back meals. So they're not eating to save money. About a third of working Californians are having a tough time paying their rent or mortgage. The survey also found that more than half of the state's residents don't think that hard work ensures any kind of future for them. So that's the backdrop of ab five and those stats say what they say. I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Amica Sherma Amika thank you. Thank you, Maureen.

Speaker 4: 10:12 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.