Gig apps for a pandemic economy: part time, no commitment

With Britain facing pandemic- and Brexit-induced labor shortage, apps that recruit gig workers are playing a role. In the U.S., similar apps are Gig Pro and Instaworks.

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Sol Schlagman, co-founder of the app Stint, holds his smartphone displaying the app running at his company’s headquarters in London.

Sol Schlagman, co-founder of the app Stint, holds his smartphone displaying the app running at his company’s headquarters in London.

Alberto Pezzali / AP

LONDON — For months, Gabrielle Walker had been looking for a part-time job. She applied to restaurant chains and retailers like Nando’s and Primark and scoured the job search site Indeed.

Nothing.

Then, Walker, a 19-year-old student at University College London, was scrolling through TikTok and stumbled on a video about an app called Stint that could help students make money by working temporary stints at places like restaurants and bars that require little training or experience.

Walker downloaded the app, took a 15-minute intro course and days later snagged a job polishing cutlery at a Michelin-star restaurant in London — for one day. Between May and June, she took on several other gigs, squeezing them into her class schedule where she could.

“Everyone could do it,” Walker said.

Stint, in use across the U.K., has grown in popularity as have similar apps in the United States like Instaworks and Gigpro as one response to the peculiar ways in which economies have been rebounding from the pandemic recession.

As the hospitality industry, in particular, confronts worker shortages, these apps are helping form an ultra-short-term worker-employee relationship, something that hasn’t widely existed in recent decades. Walker said even students with no relevant experience could sign up with one of these apps and likely find paid work — as brief as a couple of hours — that fits their schedule from week to week.

Instaworks and Gigpro are suited more to skilled or experienced workers who want or need short-term shifts.

The newer apps represent a variation on the many gig apps that sprang up in recent years — from Uber and DoorDash to TaskRabbit and Thumbtack — that typically serve households in need of a onetime service. What distinguishes the latest apps is that they link workers with employers that have a steady need for labor but don’t necessarily want to commit to permanent hires given uncertainties from the pandemic.

The newer gig apps might help ease the labor shortage in England, where nearly all pandemic restrictions were lifted last month. Most recently, its “pingdemic” — by which the National Health Service alerted people to self-isolate if they had been in close proximity to someone who had tested positive for the virus — disrupted businesses. Many workers had to isolate themselves, and some stores had to shut down temporarily for lack of labor.

“Gig economy workers can help plug the gap,” said Mariano Mamertino, a senior economist at LinkedIn.

While Mamertino holds out hope pandemic-related shortages will ease as England’s economy reopens and vaccine rollouts continue, “one question mark that remains for the UK,” he said, “is whether firms will have to permanently adapt to a new post-Brexit status quo.”

Sol Schlagman, who co-founded Stint with his brother Sam, drew from his experience as a college student in creating it.

“It’s the student that needs to have money to pay their rent,” he said, “but it’s also the student that wants to buy a pair of shoes they wouldn’t necessarily buy otherwise.”

The restaurant chain Chipotle uses Stint to recruit workers “at short notice to cover peak times in our restaurants,” said Jacob Sumner, its director of European operations.

Chilango, another food chain, said its stores use the app when they need “extra pairs of hands during busy times.”

The use of apps to connect businesses and workers for short-term gig work appears to be a growing trend in the United States as well.

“The biggest change we see is this desire for flexible staffing on both sides,” said Sumir Meghani, co-founder of Instaworks, which connects businesses with temporary or short-term hourly workers.

During the pandemic, Meghani said, businesses discovered that the rise and fall of viral cases — and the resulting disruptions to their operations — sometimes require them to scale up or down on short notice.

Gigpro’s founder Ben Ellsworth’s app, which operates in three Southern states, is expanding to try to address staffing shortages worsened by the pandemic.

Ellsworth said that restaurant workers in particular have been “plagued with low wages, lack of incentive, no real focus on flexibility or quality of life.” Stuck at home after being laid off, many turned to other industries, Ellsworth saod, or came to recognize gig work as an opportunity to tailor their work hours to their needs just as businesses, too, sought workers to fill part-time hourly slots, at least temporarily.

“Now that restrictions have been lifted and businesses are starting to boom again,” Ellsworth said, “they’re getting stretched.”

The role of gig workers can vary widely with these apps. Student users of Stint are employed as workers, guaranteed a set wage and accrued holiday pay. But those who use Instaworks are considered independent workers who can choose to be contractors or employees. Gigpro users are independent contractors.

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