The Gig Economy Makes Workers Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

Clients have a good idea of who they’re hiring or letting into their homes, but workers don’t have the same luxury

Credit: bankrx/Getty Images

IInviting someone to your home can be a signal of familial closeness, friendship, or sexual desire. Rarely do we let visitors into our bedrooms or onto our couches. We teach children to never open the door to strangers and to lock the door when their parents leave for work. At the same time, the sharing economy, with its focus on peer-to-peer service, often relies on unknown people entering the home of another unknown person to do things like cook (Kitchensurfing, now defunct) or sleep (Airbnb), or to clean, make minor repairs, or assemble furniture (TaskRabbit). Meanwhile, Lyft and Uber and other app-driven car services involve people getting into a stranger’s vehicle — violating one of the first “stranger danger” rules that many children learn.

In response to many people’s leeriness of strangers, sharing economy companies often promote their background-screening mechanisms. For example, TaskRabbit’s website notes that Taskers must pass an identity check, are screened for criminal offenses, and must attend an orientation. Uber drivers in New York City are required to undergo the same background checks and fingerprinting as taxi drivers. Drivers in other cities and states, however, may undergo only a background check that looks for criminal records within the past seven years; critics have alleged that even such minimal background checks have been easily sidestepped.

But while workers are screened to varying degrees, clients are not. The terms of service of most peer-to-peer apps ostensibly prevent clients from setting up more than one account, but as long as one has access to multiple email addresses and credit cards, it’s very easy to create numerous identities. Worker profiles are often much more complete than those of clients and include a photo and short biography. TaskRabbit, in particular, requires workers to supply additional information for their profiles before it allows them to “pass” orientation.

As a result, clients can generally rest assured that they have a fairly good idea of who they’re hiring or letting into their homes, but workers don’t have the same luxury. In addition, to protect identities, TaskRabbit provides only the first name and the first initial of a customer’s or worker’s last name. Unless there is an unusual spelling or additional details, Googling for more information is nearly impossible.

In one illustration of the possible danger of entering a stranger’s abode, several TaskRabbits told me that one Tasker had accepted a gig to clean a man’s boat, but their follow-up conversations led the Tasker to become suspicious of his task description. The woman looked up her client online and learned that he was a convicted sex offender. She quickly canceled the task.

“[They’d say,] ‘Have some wine. Do you want to smoke [marijuana]?’ Like, ‘I’m okay. Thank you. I have a job after this. I have to get home.’”

Although it’s impossible to determine if this story is a true account, the fact that it was repeated to me several times over the course of my research for my book, Hustle and Gig, suggests a sense of discomfort with the imbalance of background checking and resulting risk in the sharing economy. As Jasmine, a 23-year-old worker, put it:

Well, I don’t know how they do it now, but before, I felt like they would let anybody get on the website as a client. But it was so strict to be a Tasker. And I didn’t like that, because sometimes I would get people who wouldn’t have a profile picture [and] they would have no reviews. They would basically have nothing on their page, but they want to hire you. And I’m like, how is that fair that we have to basically give them blood, and then they will let anybody come on the website? I just feel like you can’t say you’re worried about our safety if you allow any type of person to be on the website… I just think for the safety aspect, it should be verified on both ends.

None of the workers I interviewed, for any of the services, said they had been sexually assaulted on the job. But even though my interview guide didn’t include any questions on sexual harassment, a surprisingly large number of workers mentioned sexually uncomfortable situations. Jasmine noted that some TaskRabbit clients were especially generous when she was in their home: “‘Have some wine. Do you want to smoke [marijuana]?’ Like, ‘I’m okay. Thank you. I have a job after this. I have to get home.’ Those are usually the guys.”

Jasmine also noted that she was sometimes hit on, often through a text message after the task. And then there was the cleaning task where she wasn’t exactly hit on, but an invitation of some sort seemed to be on the table:

I had one job where, [when] I went the first time, he wasn’t there. He left his key. I cleaned the house. He had his lotion on the side of the table, soiled sheets, like obviously there was some rough-and-tumble before. Okay. So that was, I think, the first test. The second time I went, he wasn’t there again. I did this job three times. It was always the same situation — you know, same dirty-sheet situation, lotion next to the bed, box of condoms, wine on the table. Like, you know what’s going on. So again, I’m just like, whatever. I clean it up. I have my gloves. Blind eye. I’m here to help.

Third time, he was there. I don’t know how the conversation came up, but he was like, “Does anyone ever hit on you?” All awkward: “Anyone ever hit on you?” I’m like, “Sometimes it gets really uncomfortable.” I’m just speaking as myself, so I’m not thinking of the context. “Yeah, sometimes it’s uncomfortable when I clean for some men and they hit on me or…,” and I said something to that regard. He’s like, “Okay.”

And two minutes later, he’s like, “I got all my stuff. I’m going to go to the cafe across the street so I’m out of your way.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, was he trying to…?” I think he was testing me those last two times. I don’t know — like they look for opportunities everywhere.

Getting hit on while working isn’t limited to female Taskers. Twentysomething Austin was the only Tasker from outside New York City that I interviewed. A full-time engineer with a relatively high income, he took on TaskRabbit work only in the evenings and on weekends as a source of “quick, easy money for beer or whatever.” In three weeks of tasking, Austin completed more than 20 tasks, ranging from picking up and delivering pillows to a home to installing 250-pound storage shelves on the ceiling of a client’s garage, directly above a Porsche and several Range Rovers — a project he described as “a little bit intimidating.”

I would say out of the 20 tasks I’ve had, most of them have been — it’s different, it’s different clients. Some of them are older women who just physically can’t do it. Some of them are lazy people. Some of them are guys, whatever, middle-aged guys who just don’t have the ability. But there definitely have been several younger girls or women who, I think, if I was single [chuckles], I think I probably could have gotten a date.

In all honesty, it almost seemed like that was what they’re looking for… but when I said I was married, they’re like, “Oh, okay.” So, yeah, I can definitely see it being like a sort of pseudo dating service, because a good-looking guy comes in and he’s handy.

Many Taskers provided errand-running services or were hired as one-day temps with local companies; as a result, Taskers found themselves in people’s private homes with the clients only a fraction of the time. Kitchensurfing chefs, by virtue of the service’s focus on providing a chef-created meal in the comfort of one’s home, almost always found themselves in people’s homes and interacting with their customers one-on-one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also reported more interactions with sexual overtones or other situations that simply made them feel uncomfortable.

“He tried to invite me his rooftop to have dinner with him because his girlfriend didn’t show up, and I was like, ‘No, I’m going to leave.’”

For instance, Roxanne, 27, had several clients ask to take selfies with her, including one client she described as “weirding” her out:

So this guy wanted to take a selfie with me. He was helping me cook. Then he tried to invite me up to his rooftop to have dinner with him because his girlfriend didn’t show up, and I was like, no, I’m going to leave. This is too much. [Laughing.]

I was like, “No, I hope you enjoy your meal and everything.” He was like, “Yeah, it’s really good. You should like stay.”… I just make excuses. I’m like, “Oh, unfortunately, I have another booking, so, you know, maybe some other time. Maybe I’ll see you around again.” I try to leave it civil. I try to make sure the situation doesn’t end up coming off badly, just try to leave it like, “No, you know, thank you anyway, but I’m going to head out,” or something to that extent. I don’t just plainly say, “No, you weirded me out. Now goodbye.”

Just as workers have to be careful about how they convey pain or injury on the job, sharing economy workers also need to be cognizant of how they come across when a client is hitting on them or otherwise suggesting something inappropriate. They know the person who just made them uncomfortable is about to give them a rating in the app.

None of the people I interviewed suggested they would lose their sharing economy gig work if they declined an invitation, but such invitations often created uncomfortable situations for workers and sounded suspiciously close to sexual harassment.

Not only is the issue of sexual harassment rarely touched on by sharing economy companies, but also workers don’t expect to have workplace protections. Behavior that would be unacceptable in a corporate office is ignored or explained away as “weird” when it occurs in an employer’s bedroom or kitchen or when the work is allegedly focused on the egalitarianism of peer-to-peer connections. Instead of feeling free to identify this treatment as sexual harassment, workers who find themselves sexually approached by clients struggle to describe what exactly is going on, using terms like “bizarro-land” to demonstrate a sense of confusion and discomfort.

From HUSTLE AND GIG: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle. Copyright © 2019. Published with permission from University of California Press. All rights reserved.

Author of Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy (2019), Visiting Scholar at IPK at NYU & Asst. Professor at Mercy College.

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