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  • Writer's pictureSpotlight News Hampton Roads

Op-Ed: Gig Economy Work during a Pandemic

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Words and Images courtesy of Moriah Joy.

When you decide to get a degree in theatre performance, or really any liberal art, there’s at least one person who jokes, “Oh, so you want to be a professional waitress?” While this statement is meant to be jovial, there is some harsh truth to it. If someone is not born into a trust fund, or upper class society, and wants to pursue a career in the arts, they’ll have to work twice as hard to achieve the dreams others bought. Personally in pursuing my passion for the arts, I’ve found myself usually working two to five jobs at a time just to get by.

Typically, most individuals who work in the arts industry fall in line with the same work mentality, this is most commonly known as the gig economy. While the term may not sound altogether familiar, you may interact with these types of jobs more than you realize, as they affect more than just artists. If your child takes private lessons, if you have your groceries delivered, if you do a photoshoot for a special occasion, then you are supporting gig economy workers. When looking at the importance of gig economy workers, they made up approximately 34% of the economy as of 2017 and were expected to grow to almost 43% this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moriah and friends are in a theater sitting on the edge of the stage rehearsing for a play

Running “side hustles” for many people often stems from the desire to have a little extra pocket cash, or more than likely, is a necessity when trying to make ends meet. However, if you are an artist of any kind then there’s a huge chance that your entire career will be “gig” based. This is such an integral part of being an artist, that it was required as a class at my college before people were allowed to graduate. The reason this knowledge is instilled into so many artists and designers, is because they rely upon venues and special events to take place in order to work. (Editor’s note: The author is VERY lucky her college chose that path. Most colleges currently do not, and there is constant discussion in our profession about how much of a disservice this is to students, and how many issues this can cause as young professionals struggle to start their careers.)

There are a few reasons why the gig economy has become such a huge facet of our society, one of the main reasons is how companies approach the treatment of their employees. Instead of working for one company from college to retirement, as was promised to so many of my generation, many have settled for part time employment or created their own by whatever means necessary. With fewer jobs guaranteeing health insurance or other common benefits that used to come with working in a longstanding career, it makes sense for more people to become their own boss. (Editor’s Note: This became especially prevalent for those who graduated and started their careers in the years surrounding the Great Recession. The ACA opened up doors for many of us to be able to afford our own health insurance, and leave jobs which hadn’t given us raises in years, or worse, had cut our pay multiple times since we started working for them.) 

Another reason the gig economy has become prevalent is because people are finding ways to make their hobbies profitable. Oftentimes, people will find out that the thing they believed to just be an interest, like baking, can be quite lucrative and end up opening their businesses from there.

The problem then becomes when normal businesses and industries are struggling to stay above water with a pandemic, how does the individual rise above and survive? Especially when before the pandemic 50% of freelance workers were having difficulty getting paid for already completed work.

According to the Virginia Unemployment Commission, the Hampton Roads Area currently has one of the highest rates of people still filing for unemployment in Virginia, in addition to the highest growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state and more restrictions added to our area. We as a community need to be mindful of those who are still working and risking their lives during this time to provide for their families and do our part to help those who are unable to do so at this time. It can be as simple as donating at the food bank, writing a letter to local or state government officials, or donating to a non-profit. (Editor’s note: As a gig worker who did not qualify for unemployment or the PUI because, though I lost multiple paying part time gigs, I still have one single part time job that is still going, I have personally received meals and food from family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers during this time. Some of them were able to keep their jobs and work from home, and can afford it, some of them are on unemployment themselves. But one of the most touching things this crisis has brought up, and the ONLY way we will get through this, is by being kind and generous to each other.)

Moriah at her graduation holding signs that say "Thanks, Mom" and "Thanks, Dad"

While for many people the arts seem like something frivolous, but they are a necessity to society. Necessary not only in the way of connecting us to each other and being able to communicate the human experience, but also as a huge section of the economy. In Virginia Beach alone, the arts account for approximately $87.7 million in revenue yearly. Think of the joy you feel at night going to see a show or a movie or turning on your favorite program to share with your children or significant other. The overwhelming emotion you felt the first time you looked at a piece of art that truly moved you. All of these experiences will be lost on the next generation if we are not careful about how we navigate these difficult times.

Are you a member of the gig economy? Over the next couple of weeks my hope is to share with you the stories or other artists and gig economy workers, to put faces to the numbers and to show the vibrant community of artists and gig workers right here in the Hampton Roads Area. Email us to be included in this series.

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