The 'gig economy': How tech is changing Rochester's workforce

In a special report, 13WHAM digs into the so-called "gig economy" and how its changing the way workers make money in Rochester (WHAM Photo)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHAM) – More people are starting to become part of the "gig economy" as technology and social media moves business forward across the U.S.

In the last year, there have been three national businesses that have taken root in Rochester: Lyft, Uber, and InstaCart.

Mike Harden drives for both Uber and Lyft services. He relies on his smartphone to pinpoint who needs a ride in his area, and picks customers up accordingly.

“You may not make a full time's pay, but you will make the money,” Harden said.

Harden tells 13WHAM that he makes an extra $600 per month in addition to his full time job as a school resource officer.

“As soon as I get out of the parking lot at school, I get on the app and I hit 'online,' and I’ll get to the city, Webster or Henrietta” Harden said. “Anywhere I think will give me the most rides.”

“It’s definitely here to stay, there’s no question about that,” said Dr. Amit Batabyal, an Economics Professor for the Rochester Institute of Technology.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, independent workers are one of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S. economy. In the last two decades, census data has revealed about one million people have classified themselves as independent contractors or a part of the “gig economy.”

“You can get one ride a day, you can get 15 rides a day, it really depends on how many people are out and how many people want rides that day,” Harden said.

“This technology is only going to get finer,” Dr. Batabyal said. “From the perspective of a supplier, it is a good thing.”

Dr. Batabyal says the popularity of gig work has also become lucrative for application developers.

Wills Mahoney, a developer from Syracuse, launched his app “Plowz and Mowz” in 2015 after he couldn’t find a contractor to shovel his mother out of a snowstorm.

“While I was out at her house shoveling her driveway, easily 10 trucks drove by,” Mahoney said. “I said to myself, 'I would gladly pay $60 to have someone come plow the driveway out.'”

Currently, 3,000 contractors from all over the country use the app to find people in their areas who need a plow or mowing service. It is a concept similar to Uber and Lyft.

“Our top provider made close to $100,000 last year,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney admits that his success was built on failures along the way. He says he has learned from them.

“A season ago, we have storms in multiple markets,” Mahoney said. “Our servers crashed. It was only for a short period of time, but we learned from it. We have so many measures in place to be able to meet the demand and scale up.”

On the opposite end, experts say adequate health insurance is an area that gig workers are fighting for. Since gig work is considered part-time contract work, companies are not required to offer health insurance.

Mahoney says providing health insurance is expensive, but in time, he plans on offering it to workers who meet certain requirements.

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