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“The gig economy helped everyone,” argues TaskRabbit’s CEO

January 24, 2022, 8:28 PM UTC

Depending on who you ask, the gig economy is either empowering or exploitative. But no one can deny that it’s an essential part of the U.S. economy: Gallup estimates gig work to be the primary job for 29% of American workers. 

Ania Smith, CEO of TaskRabbit, has built a career working for corporations that are at the center of the new gig economy. Before joining TaskRabbit in September 2020, she headed courier operations at Uber and spent three years heading host services operations at Airbnb. Smith argues that the pandemic drew more attention to the vital role independent contractors play in our society. 

“It’s become very clear that platforms like TaskRabbit are a resource for people unable to leave their homes, or needing extra help,” she tells Fortune. “The gig economy helped everyone.”

These jobs also provided people with extra income and flexibility when the unemployment rate held steady at over 10% in the summer of 2020, stemming from COVID-19 lockdowns. But companies like Uber and Lyft also faced a lot of scrutiny for not providing full-time benefits for their contract workers.

Workers in most gig jobs, particularly those with the lowest wages and fewest protections, are Black and Latinx, according to the National Institute for Workers’ Rights. And 54% of gig workers lack employee benefits, such as social security, health insurance, paid medical leave, overtime pay, and occupational safety protections, and they aren’t earning minimum wage, NIWR research found.

Smith is quick to point out that “taskers get to set their own rate and take 100% of their earnings home.” Everyone from students to the elderly hire taskers, she adds. 

“People really need help with simple tasks, and sometimes tedious ones, or things they don’t necessarily know how to do,” Smith says. “On the other side, it really does provide an opportunity for people to have flexible work, and for people to share their skills with others.”

Even in the most buttoned-up corporate jobs, people want the kind of flexibility gig work can provide, Smith argues. “We’re more focused on work output than work hours.” Workplace flexibility is gaining steam, as more and more companies flirt with four-day workweeks and more generous PTO packages

“More and more people are asking to have a flexible work environment, and they’re able to supplement their income in ways that aren’t tethered to schedules,” she says. “They want to work and travel and pick up jobs wherever they are. That’s a trend that will only get bigger.”

Smith, who identifies as an immigrant, says her appreciation for contract work stems from her family history. 

“My family came to the U.S. in the 1980s,” she says. “It can be really difficult when you’re starting off, and you don’t have the foundation you could’ve had. For my family in particular, I wish these platforms existed back then. They give the people who need the extra income the flexibility.”

Smith worked on the host side of Airbnb and was attracted to the way the company provided hosts with an income stream that had the potential to be sufficient to live on. She saw the same thing when working with couriers at UberEats.

“I do really believe in giving people this opportunity to earn extra money that they can use for their families and children,” she says.

The parameters of opportunity

TaskRabbit made national news last month for its controversial Line Stander offering, which allows taskers to make hundreds of dollars per hour to wait in line for various events or reservations. Before the pandemic, taskers would wait in line for concert tickets, for example. But this past year, taskers were standing in line for COVID tests and even access to the Elizabeth Holmes trial. Smith defends the offering. 

“We want to provide as many opportunities as we can for taskers to earn a meaningful income,” she says. “We have multiple categories on our platform, and the majority of our tasks are helping people around the home, with things like furniture assembly.” 

There are also more critical tasks, she points out, like shoveling people’s driveways after a big snowstorm. Line Stander, she says, is a small category. “We do see [people do] that once in a while, but they’re not really the core of our product. We’re primarily focused on home-based tasks, and our partnership with Ikea is very much focused there.”

TaskRabbit constantly reviews its offerings to ensure its services are meeting consumer wants and needs, which change over time. “Our platform is a marketplace,” she says. “Taskers can help people who can’t stand in line because they’re disabled, or have other challenges. It’s not a category we promote, but we want to make sure our platform is as inclusive as it can be to help all kinds of customers, both on the tasker and client side.”

The side-hustle boom

While people might not be leaving corporate gigs to become taskers, Smith argues that the money gig workers can earn is significant. 

“The average hourly wage for a tasker in the U.S. is $48. In cities like New York and the Bay Area, it’s around $60. That’s truly meaningful,” Smith says. “I spoke yesterday with a tasker who started during the pandemic after being laid off at Hertz. Hertz recently asked him back, but he turned them down, because his flexibility and potential is bigger at TaskRabbit. These stories are really prevalent.”

TaskRabbit has also seen a big increase in the number of people signing up for the app: 67% more people set up tasker accounts in FY2021 than FY2020, she says. Some had lost their jobs during the pandemic and were looking for new roles with more flexibility, others were recent graduates struggling to find full-time employment right out of school, and others still were parents in need of supplemental income to support their families, a TaskRabbit spokesperson wrote in an email to Fortune. About one-third of the tasker population are actors or musicians.

The app currently employs thousands of taskers in eight countries. Smith heavily invests in making the distributed workforce feel connected and included. She oversees on-the-ground teams whose sole job is to ensure one-on-one connections with taskers. 

“They provide coaching services to help match taskers with the best jobs for them,” she says. “We communicate via email and hold all-hands meetings where we tell them about new updates coming to the product and share tips and tricks.”

Smith says she often, particularly since the pandemic, has seen college grads who start off building their careers by tasking.

“I recently spoke with a New York-based tasker who just graduated from NYU, and is currently making over $150,000 mounting TVs” Smith says. “Maybe it’s not long-term, but in this economy, it’s given him a great start. He’s made great connections and he’s paying off his student loans.”

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