I was waiting tables at a restaurant in Astoria, Oregon when DoorDash’s ad caught my eye. The economy in Astoria depends on tourism and I was struggling to make ends meet in the off-season. Working in the gig economy, where the ad promised up to $25 an hour making deliveries, sounded too good to be true.
And it was.
After signing up with DoorDash and moving back to my hometown of Everett, I managed to rent an RV that would provide shelter for me and my dog, Boe. The lot for the trailer alone was $200 a week. It was my only option, and it seemed doable when I did the calculations in my head and on paper.
But I started falling behind on rent and bills within just a few weeks. In the gig economy, you’re classified as an independent contractor, which means no access to basics like workers’ comp, unemployment or even the minimum wage. You also pay for all your own expenses, such as gas, car maintenance and self-employment taxes.
I quickly learned that $25/hour wage was a distant fantasy. That figure, based on the maximum a “Dasher” could make before expenses, was a ceiling, not a guarantee. Instead, I was earning closer to $9 an hour — below the minimum wage — and I found myself spending more and more time behind the wheel. Sometimes I worked 70-hour weeks just to break even.
It wasn’t healthy. I pushed myself way past the limit of exhaustion to try to make more, but I was so tired that I once fell asleep waiting at a red light.
Delivering for DoorDash was putting myself and others in danger.
The gig economy took a toll on my mental health, too. Spending all day on the road is lonely — you don’t have regular customers or coworkers or a boss appraising your work. I didn’t have time to see my family or friends. I was so locked into delivering food, I barely had time to cook dinner or take a shower. I didn’t recognize myself. And no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t getting anywhere.
In March, I was only making about $400 a week and pouring much of that back into my car in gas. On a good day I made $13 an hour, chasing hope and thinking I could make it work. But a tiny slip-up, like hitting traffic or a glitch in the app, would throw off my take-home wages for the day.
Then I fell behind on my RV’s rent and there was no catching up. In a few weeks, I was evicted.
I spent the next two months living in a van with Boe. I parked at rest stops and in parks, sleeping on the folded backseat. Every morning, I woke up, fed Boe, turned the DoorDash app on and hit the road. Any semblance of structure slipped away from me.
This isn’t uncommon. The gig economy targets people who are already on the fringes, lacking a safety net — I was that demographic. Working a gig job meant my life, already chaotic, would never stabilize.
By June, I’d realized I had to stop. The promise of flexibility and good pay would never materialize. I put the gig economy behind me and got a hotel job.
With the stability of a regular paycheck, I was able to move back into my RV and pick up the pieces of the life I’d left behind. I worked to rebuild my relationships with my parents and friends. Boe has room to run around again, and I have time to take him on walks. I’m no longer secluded in my head and in my van.
Instead, I’m spending time in my community, advocating for gig workers with Working Washington. The gig economy is often hailed as the new hope for a workforce that craves more flexibility — but without major changes, that’s wishful thinking. These jobs must offer better, more transparent pay and access to basic rights and benefits. These jobs don’t work if they can’t actually help someone make a living. Nobody who is putting their all into their job should live like I did.
It’s that simple.
Chris Palmer is a former gig economy worker, helping Working Washington to increase protections for employees.
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