Rowan is aware of the downsides of gig work. “You have a perception of how gig work works at the moment, and your perception is it’s low-quality, precarious, minimal benefits, very little control for the workers, and probably a dead end,” he says. “And you’re right. It is all of those things.” That is the gig work the unregulated private sector had created, he argues, but “gig work,” broadly, is not inherently exploitative.
With the advent of CalFLEXI, the city of Long Beach aims not to collaborate with or regulate gig companies, but to compete with them.
How CalFLEXI differs from private-sector platforms
So, how did the program actually work? In late October 2020, the City of Long Beach rolled out a pilot program called “Work LB” to provide free childcare to eligible city residents. The program was funded by the CARES Act, and ran on a trial basis through the end of 2020. Local government teamed up with Skills4Care, a local childcare nonprofit, to source qualified childcare workers, including those with special needs training. Those workers signed up for CalFLEXI to get gigs booked. According to Schultz, childcare providers for CalFLEXI were paid around $21 to $27 an hour, based on their level of experience. The intermediary (here, Skills4Care) took about $3 to $4 off of the top, meaning that the lowest pay rate was about $17 hourly — above Long Beach’s $13 to $14 hourly minimum wage and the estimated $9 an hour that rideshare drivers earn.
Crucially, all of these childcare providers are given full employment status by Skills4Care, meaning that they receive health care and other benefits. In some cases, families could even request that a family member or friend provide the childcare for them, in which case the worker would be hired by Skills4Care. Their hours would then be booked and paid for through the CalFLEXI site. Skills4Care would run necessary background checks and provide COVID-19 safety training for its new workforce. Workers and eligible families would then use CalFLEXI’s online platform much like a traditional gig-work site: selecting desired hours, choosing preferred providers, paying them through the site when applicable, and offering a rating.
Joy is a parent who used CalFLEXI during its pilot phase. She balances a full-time job and several side hustles. She believes that all parents would reap mental-health benefits from having “an hour or two a day, or even a week, just to sit down on a swing and not worry about anything,”
An actual person would review all submitted hiring requests, and would call the families in question if a given provider was not available, or negotiate different schedules between worker and parent as necessary. Joy, a mom of three who used CalFLEXI, described how this representative allowed her to hire a sitter for a full eight hours so long as they had a lunch break: another instance of bringing traditional workplace accommodations to the gig work model.
Star Ratings as a Skills-Training Tool
Anyone who’s ridden in an Uber is familiar with being nudged by the app to give a driver a 1-5 star rating after the trip. Because CalFLEXI is in the public sector, users of the platform — which is to say, the person receiving the service — are trained to consider ratings differently. As Rowan describes, CalFLEXI workers are given between one and six stars, where the stars correlate to the amount of experience they have with their employer. Their star rating would increase to signify that the responsibilities of the worker had increased: a hotel worker could start off as a single star, then rise to two stars after receiving training to work the reception desk. Three stars could be awarded after the worker had been shown how to do room checkout. As Rowan describes, a two-star rating is “not you saying ‘He’s crap,’ it’s you saying, ‘I’ve invested in him a bit more.’”
In total, 103 experienced childcare providers were employed by Skills4Care. They came from work as substitute teachers or youth leaders, but had lost their jobs during COVID. 127 local families applied for help from the CalFLEXI program, and all received childcare through it: first a baseline of 40 hours, with more available as necessary. Between late October and the end of the year, 3,765 hours of childcare were booked through the site.
Joy herself fits the model initially described by Nick Schultz: She’s a Long Beach resident with a job in workers’ compensation, with side hustles in notarizing and tax preparation. She has three kids, the youngest of whom is just ten months old. As we spoke, she rocked on a swing in her verdant Long Beach backyard, effusive about the program. Twice in the duration of our 20-minute phone call, she repeated that CalFLEXI should be made available in every state in the U.S.
“I think with parents, especially with moms, if they can get, like, an hour or two a day, or even a week just to kind of sit down on a swing and then just not worry about anything,” she said, their mental health would dramatically improve. She continued, “‘Cause, I know my kids are in there and they’re safe and there’s someone who’s responsible, who’s vouched for, that’s watching them… If you would give me a tax credit, or if you would give me some money, … I would rather that you give me … like, five hours a week [of childcare], so I can just sit and just not think of anything.” She laughed. “I think the country would be better if the moms are not as stressed; that’s what I’m actually trying to say.”
The Challenges of Building Supply and Demand for the Program
What would it take to get other cities to implement something like CalFLEXI? Beyond lingering questions about gig work and whether or not it really can provide a livable income, the cost and the government’s ability to roll out functional technologies are two particular sticking points.
Nick Schultz is the deputy director of the city of Long Beach’s economic development department.
When I ask Rowan what it would take to get something like CalFLEXI going outside of Long Beach, he is confident: “The frustrating thing is that it’s so easy to do!” Beyond Jobs’ technology could be implemented in Pennsylvania “tomorrow. It’s not a problem.” The biggest hurdle wasn’t the technological back end; it’s “market making,” or creating sufficient interest among local employers to hire the inevitable masses who would use the site. Without that demand, those who rushed to sign up for their local CalFLEXI would be instantly disappointed by the lack of job offerings and write the program off as a bust. Market-making means figuring out: “Who are the big users of flexi-labor around the area, and how do we build a business case for them moving to our platform?”
I ask Schultz if the government’s spend on CalFLEXI was significantly bigger than on traditional models of responding to unemployment — a concern that might prevent other cities from developing similar programs. He replies that he thinks it’s less significant, in part because — in his opinion, and in the logic of the program — investing in workers through CalFLEXI also means working to “abate unemployment or upskill a person,” which also means greater gains for employers at the end of the day, too. Unlike the vertical structure of dead-end gig work such as Uber, this program is “a horizontal marketplace,” with “resources to help people navigate, to help them upskill, to help them find better opportunity.” Crucially, the “upskilling” argument relies on an ideal vision of implementation, wherein employers are invested in fostering the skills of their gig workers and employees are hired for long enough that taking on additional responsibilities makes sense.
Like Rowan, Schultz emphasizes that “this taskification, this disaggregation of jobs, was already going on.” Rowan likens CalFLEXI to the U.S. government’s response to scammy staffing agencies in the 1930s, where “bad-actor staffing agencies … were selling access to non-existent vacancies, … behaving just as badly as the worst gig work companies behave now.” FDR’s government “could have spent the 1930s playing whack-a-mole legislative games, trying to stop all of these scams, but they didn’t.” Instead, they offered access to a similar, functional public option: “nationwide public labor exchanges.” On a much smaller scale, CalFLEXI is trying its hand at competing with an exploitative faction of the private sector. Without stepping into the messy world of corporate regulation, CalFLEXI offers local workers a more equitable public option, and local families an affordable solution.