- By Johanna Salinas
The alternative workforce: How the pandemic has transformed the gig economy on Guam
Before the pandemic, Angela Camacho freelanced as an administrative assistant until she found a full-time job as clerical support. When her work hours were reduced, she returned to freelancing as a delivery food driver.
“I actually started food delivery in February last year before the pandemic. The demand for delivery food got higher when the pandemic first struck,” Camacho said. “When the pandemic hit, I tried taking on more delivery orders since it’s commissioned to make some kind of sustainable income.”
Freelancers, also known as “gig workers” or independent contractors, are those who earn income outside of traditional employer–employee relationships. Other potential work for this kind of setup includes writing, sales, graphic arts, photography, bookkeeping and housekeeping among others.
Numbers are currently not available for Guam, but U.S. statistics show that participation in the gig economy has grown over the past few years. Some estimates predict that gig workers represent around 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2020, up from between 14 and 20 percent in 2014.
Locally, anecdotal evidence indicates that freelance has expanded exponentially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, due in part to the increased reliance on gig workers to home-deliver necessities to consumers.
Being outside of the traditional workplace, however, can come with uncertainty. For example, with the government slowly easing some restrictions, food delivery service has not been as in demand as it was during the lockdown months. “Now that we’re in PCOR3 people are relying less on deliveries and are now going out to either dine in or pick up the food themselves,” Camacho said.
She lives with her grandmother, her mother and brother, both of whom have disabilities. Camacho is the primary caretaker of her family. “At the start of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, I was relying on what I had left in my savings and it wasn’t very much. Then I had to ask for help from my grandma whom I reside with since she still receives retirement pensions,” she said.
Camacho was earning enough to scrape by. However, the constant driving started taking its toll on her health. “I later realized that it was hard to work a gig job and still take care of family at home. I was worn out daily,” she said.
Gig workers are eligible for the new round of the pandemic unemployment assistance program under President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. For self-employed, qualification is not based on hours worked. “They may qualify for PUA but must show their income has been diminished significantly due to the public health emergency," according to the Guam Department of Labor.
“I am really grateful for the financial assistance from the government during this pandemic. Not only am I able to continue paying my monthly car payments and other bills, but I’m also able to pay for college tuitions,” Camacho said.
Since many businesses on Guam have not recovered from the impact of the Covid-related lockdown, many people remain jobless and the economy is likely to embrace the growing army of gig workers.
Sean Davis was working his dream job as a multimedia artist, dealing with photos, videos and graphics. He was working at Glimpses of Guam until he resigned on March 15. “Due to the pandemic, my salary was greatly affected. I went from a yearly salary to an hourly worker,” Davis said.
There were days when he didn’t go into work. In the beginning, he said, this was doable. “However, when we started getting fewer cases, our jobs started to pick back up again,” Davis said. “Only this time, the company still couldn’t adequately compensate for the amount of work they were giving me. You can conclude that the pandemic affected my former workplace’s financial stability to properly pay their workers.”
When his hours were reduced, Davis took on more freelancing to make ends meet. “During the time after the pandemic hit, I was financially supporting myself with the assistance of PUA and freelance gigs in the form of photography, video and graphics,” Davis said.
Amid the economic meltdown, the demand for his service was low but Davis’gigs later began to slowly pick up.
“The best thing that kept me going despite all of that was my photography services. After doing this for many years, I started seeing the accumulation of my experience and expertise in the industry and my side income started becoming more than my primary income,” Davis said. “In the end, the amount of traction my side hustle was receiving is what kept me going. I am proud to say as of March 2021, a year after the pandemic, I went full-time into my business and I could not be happier.”
Despite the appeal of flexible hours, there are downsides to not having a regular job, such as occasional work uncertainty, the lack of benefits including 401K or health insurance.
Writer and podcaster Josie Moyer lost work right around the time when the pandemic began. “When Covid hit I had a contract that was pretty regular. It was like three days a week at a client’s office and then after that, that went away,” she said.
“I still do work for them but it's not nearly as often and as consistent as it was. My finances were affected. It's very scary not to have regular checks and benefits and nobody goes into freelance or the arts for the money,” she added.
Since her business license has expired, it was difficult for Moyer to qualify for PUA. “When everything shut down, I couldn't renew my business license at the time,” she said. “I couldn't claim that small business grants. And then even the stimulus checks, I haven't gotten a stimulus check. Apparently 20 years ago, when I became Josie ‘Moyer,’ I never changed my Social Security name. Revenue tax sent me a letter that the name they have on file with IRS is my birth name. I have to take care of that and I haven't gotten around to that, because it's almost impossible to get in touch with somebody with Social Security. I'm just banking that money away.”
Just the same, Moyer does not regret going into freelance. Like many others, she has chosen to work on her own terms.
Moyer uses her downtime to focus on a project she hopes to launch soon. “I'm developing a product, I don’t want to say what it is,” she said. “I'm enrolled in the Guam Unique Merchandise and Art. I’m going through their 16-week training program and at the end of the program, you have an opportunity to be pitch your idea to their board to get funding. I'm moving ahead with that because it’s a product I've been working on for a year. What keeps me in check and keeps me grounded is knowing that it could be worse.”