By Zella Roberts
Apps used to just be mozzarella sticks but now? They might just be destroying the already precarious working conditions at your local restaurant.
In response to the ongoing wage shortage, the food and beverage industry has been forced to pivot; one option they’ve adopted is to utilize apps such Gigpro, which aims to connect workers to short-term opportunities in the restaurant industry.
Gigpro, founded in 2019, is an app that purports to connect restaurant workers with restaurants in need of short-term laborers and is available in select larger cities across the South and Chicago. Restaurant owners can post a shift, and the app alerts available “Pros” (restaurant workers) to apply. This could, for example, alleviate the staffing issues that crop up when one worker has to unexpectedly call out of their already understaffed restaurant job, as management could easily find a short-term replacement. The restaurant then pays the wages to the app, which in turn takes a percentage and then pays the worker.
The app offers payouts directly to users’ bank accounts after two business days, or instantly in the form of an electronic gift card. Users are also charged 38 cents-per-hour-worked for the mandatory Occupational Accident Insurance, which the app automatically deducts from the paycheck. Gigpro users could access telehealth options (for a fee of $8.99 per month) through the app.
According to founder Ben Ellsworth, a former chef, the app will only allow businesses to post an opening if they pay a minimum of $15 per hour. While Gigpro touts its commitment to what could amount to a higher-than-average hourly rate, this is not a sufficient living wage in any city where Gigpro operates; in Austin, San Antonio and Jacksonville it comes close, but still misses the mark. Gigpro workers are also classified as independent contractors, and thus no income tax is withheld, making taxes more difficult for workers to calculate and save for.
Despite the promise of flexibility and (potentially) higher pay, users are also not hired in the ways the app promises. Tommy Vidacovich, of Asheville, N.C., turned to Gigpro last summer as a means of “hopeful survival income,” but despite three years of experience working front-of-house in upscale restaurants, has yet to be hired for a single gig. “I’m experienced and I’m applying to jobs below my experience, but I’ve never had such a hard time finding a restaurant job.”
Vidacovich was initially drawn to the app because of “the instant gratification. There’s so few jobs where you can get money at the end of a shift, and when you’re in survival mode, you need money in that moment.” He also cites income as being one of the biggest perils facing restaurant workers, so when the app advertised quick work and even quicker paychecks, he was all in.
Gigpro could be easily misused by restaurants. For example, restaurants could post positions that they never intended to fill as a way to assuage current employees and echo everyone’s least favorite phrase of 2021, “no one wants to work anymore.”
Workers could be left even more vulnerable because, while the app offers employers the opportunity to rate workers, it denies workers any such evaluative mechanism, which makes it impossible for users to know the restaurant’s motivations for relying on independent contractors. Further, according to a Gigpro brand representative, some restaurants are opting to find new talent on Gigpro rather than posting open positions on traditional job seeking platforms or rely on word-of-mouth.
“It (gig work) reminds me of very high turnover jobs that aren’t yet gig-ified, like fast food, where they expect that you aren’t going to be there long. In environments like that, it gives them the ability to treat you pretty poorly,” added Vidacovich. This move to short-term work could also lead to even more precarious paycheck-to-paycheck, or even shift-to-shift, lifestyle.
Gig work also offers fewer workplace protections. Independent contractors are denied the right to organize with a Union through the NLRB, which poses new barriers for labor organizers hoping to mobilize the potentially gig-ified hospitality industry. Many independent contractors are also hired for short-term work, and are thus less likely to build meaningful organizing relationships; The work of organizing takes time and can’t be done in an afternoon. However, restaurant workers find themselves with more bargaining power in the labor market for the first time in decades. Unionization membership rates are steadily increasing, workers at major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks are making history by exercising their right to organize and class consciousness is rising amongst the masses.
“All restaurant workers are organizers. When we include all workers in the food chain, from farm workers to delivery drivers, we drive the industry to a place where we all have a voice.
And while many unions are unwilling to put resources behind organizing gig workers, there is hope to be found in grassroots movements. Across the country, gig workers are organizing themselves through groups such as Los Deliveristas Unidos, a New York City based collective of app delivery workers, Rideshare Drivers United, a worker-led organization of drivers founded in 2018, Gig Workers Rising, which is more broadly organizing the gig economy including Instacart, Uber ,Lyft, and Doordash drivers, and the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, focusing on drivers located in Boston, MA.
Despite the challenges to labor organizing posed by the gig-ification of the food and beverage industry, these examples of gig workers realizing their collective power show us that it is possible to adapt and fight for justice. “Worker solidarity, especially in the sense of unionizing in the South,” is the solution, according to Vidacovich. “It could be so easy to unionize in restaurants because of the solidarity amongst workers. We’re doing the work already.”
All restaurant workers are organizers. When we include all workers in the food chain, from farm workers to delivery drivers, we push the industry to a place where we all have a voice.
Additional reporting by Colleen Koperek