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Gig workers bear the brunt of US labour market slowdown

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Chase Copridge sleeps in a van, then spends 16 hours a day sitting in a car. Parked outside grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay area with other drivers, he waits for a job to come through on Instacart, DoorDash or Amazon Flex, whichever app he is working for that day.

But delivery assignments have been few and far between as a winter surge of Covid cases triggered new lockdowns in several states, prompting increasing competition for app-based work. Before the pandemic, Mr Copridge says he easily made up to $400 in a single day but that sum was at an all-time low of between $100 and $150 in recent weeks — at the end of a devastating year for the US economy and his own finances.

“That’s the reality of gig work,” he said. “Time taken away from your family and friends and other avenues of life just to get by.” 

The struggles of the 33-year-old driver in California are emblematic of the broader travails of the American jobs market, which after a faster-than-expected rebound from the initial pandemic shock, is showing signs of another serious slowdown.

US employers slammed the brakes on rehiring workers shed during the coronavirus crisis, creating just 245,000 jobs in November compared with 611,000 the previous month.

As employment in restaurants, movie theatres, stores and other parts of the service economy comes under pressure, more people are turning to gig work such as delivery, putting downward pressure on earnings, workers say.

The same-day delivery service Shipt, which is owned by the retailer Target, said the number of independent contractors it now pays to pick groceries off store shelves and deliver them to customers has more than doubled since the end of 2019. The grocery delivery service Instacart hired 300,000 new shoppers in April alone and announced plans to hire 250,000 more.

At the same time, pandemic restrictions are cutting into areas of the gig economy such as car-hailing. Uber said in August that its gross bookings on rides fell 75 per cent between April and June.

One of the most troubling features of the labour market slowdown has been a surge in applications for jobless benefits disbursed through a federal programme set up specifically for gig workers and the self-employed who do not have access to regular state benefits.

A bar chart showing people in service sectors hit hardest throughout the pandemic

According to the labour department, 455,037 people filed for the so-called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance scheme in the week to December 12, almost double the number from two weeks earlier, and the number of new applicants was still high in the week to December 26, at 308,262.

“You’ve really seen since August very little improvement in the economy [and that] is running full force into this new surge of the pandemic,” said Eliza Forsythe, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People that are in service sector jobs, customer-facing jobs, lower wage workers and gig workers have been hardest hit throughout this period. That same group of people is again losing jobs and going back on unemployment insurance.” 

Even in states such as Texas that have fewer Covid-related restrictions on activity, low-wage workers have been struggling to regain business.

Willy Solis said his earnings have dropped in recent weeks, while expenses have been cutting into his diminished income

Willy Solis has driven through the suburbs of Dallas for apps including Shipt since late 2019 to help bridge the gap between construction jobs. Mr Solis says his earnings from being a Shipt shopper have dropped in recent weeks, and expenses including petrol, insurance and additional personal protective equipment have been cutting into his diminished income.

Mr Solis — who also works with the Gig Workers Collective, an informal union of Shipt shoppers and drivers for Instacart and DoorDash — said many others also complain of reduced workloads. “There are fewer orders in our individual queues,” he said.

Shipt said in a statement that the company’s shoppers were being offered more orders than at this time in 2019, in addition to complimentary PPE and holiday bonuses.

This week US workers such as Mr Copridge and Mr Solis received an important reprieve. After months of tortuous negotiations and tense stand-offs, Congress and the White House passed a $900bn economic relief bill that includes a $600 cheque for people earning up to $75,000 a year as well as aid to small businesses. Most importantly for the millions of low-wage and gig workers on the front lines of the crisis, the legislation also brought back emergency unemployment benefits worth $300 a week to each recipient for 11 additional weeks.

Column chart of Weekly new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, thousands showing Applications for jobless benefits continue to be elevated

“There’s huge relief,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think-tank. “It averts poverty, it averts extreme distress, but for a lot of people in that place it’s still a limited package. They are still in a hard spot.”

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project in Washington, said recipients of unemployment benefits would still have to wait a few weeks before receiving their payments while states reconfigured their systems, so the delay in reaching a compromise on Capitol Hill had already taken a toll on the most-stricken workers in the labour market.

And she expressed concern that minority groups will not get the same access to the relief benefits as other workers. “Fewer people get benefits and those benefits are smaller in states with the highest population of black workers, Latino workers and indigenous workers,” she said.

In California, Mr Copridge expressed a sense of powerlessness, saying that until the economy recovers fully, he does not see any viable alternatives to gig work. The stimulus cheque will help subsidise the cost of his car, but even if a mooted increase to $2,000 were approved it would not be a game-changer.

“For most people in the Bay Area, that isn’t going to do jack for them,” he said. “We’re hustlers, but we’re also victims.”



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Analysis

Can plant-based milk beat conventional dairy?

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Plant-based milk brands are churning up the global dairy business, with a surge in sales, investment, and new products coming to market. The plant derived dairy trade is now worth an estimated $17bn worldwide.

Growing consumer demand has boosted investment. According to data firm Dealroom, venture capital funding across the plant-based dairy and egg sector has skyrocketed, from $64m in 2015 to $1.6bn in 2020.

The world’s biggest food company, Nestle, recently launched its first international plant-based dairy brand, a cow’s milk substitute made from yellow peas. Wonder will come in a variety of flavours, competing with established brands like Oatly oat-based milk. Founded in Sweden in the 1990s, that company is now valued at around $15bn. Demand for alternatives to soya, which once dominated the dairy free market, continues to escalate.

In the west, sales for other plant-based milks, including oat, cashew, coconut, hemp, and other seeds overtook soya back in 2014. Since then, they’ve raced ahead to be worth almost three times as much as soya products, with a combined projected value of more than $5bn in sales by 2022.

Advocates argue that plant-based production emits less greenhouse gas than cattle, making it the way forward to help feed the world and curb global warming. But dairy groups are fighting back with their own sustainability campaigns. And cow’s milk is hard to beat when it comes to naturally occurring nutrients, like protein, vitamins and minerals.

The average 100 millilitre glass of cow’s milk contains three grammes of protein, compared to 2.2 grammes in pea milk and just one gramme in oat-based substitutes.

Dairy producers have also won a legal bid, preventing vegan competitors in the EU from calling their products milk and yoghurt. Despite their growing popularity, plant-based brands are a long way from displacing conventional milk products. Their current $17bn turnover is still a drop in the pail, compared with the traditional cattle-based dairy trade, which is worth an estimated $650bn worldwide.



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'It’s more than sport – every day we are fighting for our rights to be equal’

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French pro basketball player and podcaster Diandra Tchatchouang on her role beyond the court



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Emily Dean on how allyship amplifies the female experience on film

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When I was six years old, I decided to be an artist. When I was 12, I decided to be a filmmaker. And instead of saying no, you can’t do that, or it’s not possible, my mum bought me a video camera.

After several years of working in the industry, I’m working with a female director for the first time. And it’s been such a gratifying experience. Women express leadership in different ways. Maybe you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room. But you can have great ideas.

And the best thing about being mentored by women and being a mentor to women is that make friends with women.

There’s something so powerful the women coming alongside other women, especially in a group setting. Because it means that you can and back each other up. You can support each other’s decisions, and you can amplify each other’s voices.

It’s about seeing yourself in your work. Seeing some part of yourself reflected is really gratifying. It’s also important that we speak up for female characters. I want to see girls and women on screen who have the whole cacophony of experience of what it’s like to be female.

I want to see their flaws. I want to feel their struggles. I want to see their joy. That is so important to making a character feel real. And it took me a little while to settle into myself and realise, if the characters I like to come up with are not your everyday run of the mill characters you see in animation, that’s fine. Because this is who I am.

When you walk into a story room, when you’re working on a film, you have to leave your ego at the door. I think that can be interpreted like keep your ego out of the work. But I’d also say for women who are maybe more shy that leaving your ego at the door means you walk in. And your job is to focus on what’s best for the story and for the film.

The story needs you. The film needs you, and it needs your best ideas. It won’t thrive unless you speak up.



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