The National Minimum Wage Hasn’t Risen Since 2009. Workers Are Paying The Price.

Naomi Ogutu, a mother of three who started driving for rideshare companies in 2016 after emigrating from Kenya, considered herself “very lucky” to have a job with flexible hours that allowed her to shuttle her kids to and from school. She leased a Chevy Suburban because the seven-seat SUV allowed her to earn higher fares as an UberXL driver that would make up for the vehicle’s higher gas cost and $660 monthly payment. Working 60 hours a week, she could earn close to $8,000 in a month before taxes.

But when ridership decreased during the pandemic and the government assistance programs ended, her monthly income dipped below $4,000. No longer able to afford rent on her Brooklyn apartment, which had risen to $2,500, she moved her family to Newark, New Jersey. Her rent was cheaper at $1,600 a month, but she had to spend $450 a week on gas and around $25 in tolls for daily trips to and from New York City, which had higher customer demand than in the area around her new home.

“The fares are not increasing, but our expenses are skyrocketing,” said Ogutu, who was a marketing professor in Kenya with a master’s in business administration. “The app companies connect us with the customer, but the main expenses of the business are paid by me.”

As gas prices began a steep rise in early 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ogutu found that her commutes into the city weren’t always worth the fuel costs she had to pay. To keep her income steady, she has found opportunities through the people around her. Using connections she has built through social media groups and the Justice for App Workers coalition, she picks up jobs driving private clients.

When a limousine driver she knew got a flat tire while ferrying a group from Brooklyn to Atlantic City in October, Ogutu swung by to take them the rest of the way, then handled the driver’s other ride appointments that day. When she picks up people from the airport or knows acquaintances from Kenya are visiting New York City, she offers her services as a personal driver for their trip, earning nearly $700 for a full day’s work.

“I started doing this when things got really tough,” she said. “I realized this is better.”

Ogutu’s efforts to reduce her dependency on rideshare behemoths reflect a growing resistance to employment terms that more and more workers deem exploitative, as more people making low wages protest labor conditions and quit their jobs.

But few alternatives exist.

After the Dollar General closed, Milligan applied for a number of jobs, including one at Walmart, which offered about the same pay without any guarantees of full-time hours.

Seeking a way to pay the bills while searching for full-time employment with health insurance, Milligan found gigs doing housework for older relatives and neighbors, and resurrected an old side hustle she first developed when she was 12: She braided hair for her cousins, nieces, and nephews. Those relatives told their friends about the service, and soon she was doing three heads a week, at $150 each, totaling more than she made in a week at Dollar General.

“They’re just a walking billboard for me,” she said of her new clients. “‘Cause a lot of people love to get their hair braided and ask them, ‘Who did your hair?’”

Thompson didn’t have a side hustle to fall back on as she applied for jobs. Through August and September, her search yielded no offers. She continued rotating her bill payments, falling further behind each month. Her loved ones ensured the lights stayed on and the house was never at risk of foreclosure.

Then one day in October, a temp agency she signed up for offered her a position at a Mercedes-Benz factory. The job paid $14 an hour and guaranteed 40 hours a week.

“I was so happy,” she said four days after she was hired. “It’s like a burden lifted up from my shoulders.”

She hopes the factory hires her for a permanent position. ●

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