“I’ve got a gig on Saturday.”
We’ve all heard someone say something like that, right? It might be a guitarist in a band or a burgeoning comedian trying out a new set, or that kind-of-crazy-kind-of-cool guy who does a magic act part time.
But “gig workers”, who are being celebrated today as part of the first ever “National Independent Worker Day”, encompass a much broader scope of people than entertainers. Forbes.com describes this group as
“A robust, growing and evolving segment, the independent workforce is a powerful economic group, generating $1.28 trillion of revenue for the U.S. economy in 2018. According to recent research, this group will increase to 47.2 million people over the next five years, representing a 2.8% annual growth rate. “
Members of the independent workforce can be caterers, event labor staff, specialty skill providers on sites like Fiverr, Upwork, and TaskRabbit, tutors, ride share drivers, babysitters, photographers, etc. And then, there is “promo work”, a subset of the marketing industry where people are hired (usually as temporary independent contractors) to help promote a company’s product or service. From the outside, these “gig workers” often appear to have it easy — they pass out flyers or food samples, run games at fairs and festivals, do demonstrations of the latest iPhone app, act as hosts and “atmosphere models” for VIP events, and more activities that people see and often quip, “wait, you get paid for that?”
This work, however, is a lot more challenging than it seems. It involves constantly looking for bookings / registering for new agencies / doing interviews, dealing with last-minute cancelations and crazy managers, parking in sketchy neighborhoods to hike over to an event site, often waiting three months (or more) to be paid, working long hours on foot with few breaks and only the odd protein bar to eat, and, it being highly temporary work, the general instability of never quite knowing what kind of situation you’re stepping into on any given day. It’s on that note that this “gig worker” story begins.
Everything started out fine.
It was the second weekend in May, 2012, and I was working a two-day promo for Oscar Mayer at the Sweet Auburn Festival in Atlanta. It was part of their multi-city marketing tour to promote two new flavors to consumers, complete with the famous Wienermobile and a separate food truck for cooking hot dogs on-site so that festival attendees could enjoy fresh, piping hot samples, fall in love with the new flavors, and (hopefully) buy them on their next shopping trip using an accompanying coupon.
We were all there with our “promo smiles” at the ready and our uniforms on, which consisted of khaki shorts, tennis shoes, and shirts featuring the bright, cheery yellow and red signature colors of the Oscar Mayer brand with a welcoming “YES!” written in all caps on the front (we assumed the “YES!” was intended to imply “say yes to these exciting new flavors!” or something like that.)
All that day, we passed out samples and coupons to hungry and grateful passersby, the ideal exchange going something like this:
Us: (holding out a tray of sample cups and coupons) Hi, guys! Would you like to try the new hot dog flavors from Oscar Mayer?
Attendees: Sure! (looking over the tray of samples) What do we have here?
Us: The ones with red toothpicks are the “Chicago Recipe” and the blue toothpicks are “New York Style.” Please, try both!
Attendees: Don’t mind if we do! Wow, these are great! Where can I buy some?
Us: You can get them at Walmart, Publix, Kroger, and other major grocery retailers. And here’s a coupon for you!
Attendees: Thanks! Glad we stopped by!
Us: Thank YOU! Have a great day!
Of course, it didn’t always go exactly like that, but we were at a festival passing out free food to hungry people who were excited that it wasn’t a $13 funnel cake, so we were pretty popular.
All that day, we distributed samples, coupons, and good cheer. The attendees were grateful and the tour managers were happy. All was well.
And then, Sunday came.
Anyone who has spent time in Georgia in the Spring can tell you that the weather is about as predictable as a toddler in a theme park.
Saturday had boasted a high of 79 degrees, which, with the combination of the sunshine above us and the asphalt below, had made it feel like a full-on Summer day, wonderfully warm and bright and lovely. Then temperatures plummeted overnight, and on Sunday, we were greeted with grey clouds that spat down a drizzly mist which brought the cold air down with it, blanketing the whole festival in chilly discomfort.
We’d traded in our khaki shorts for pants and those of us with experience had layered underneath our branded shirts with camisoles or undershirts as well, but the cold of the wet and windy air permeated all and settled underneath our skin, where it stayed in an ever-present shiver.
We did our best with the sampling, though attendance was significantly lower that day due to the weather, and the tour managers were getting nervous about not reaching the quota they’d been assigned for the event.
“Keep sampling,” they said. “Get every person who walks by.”
We persevered, amping up our energy to try to compensate for the lackluster ambiance of our surroundings as people trudged by, a few begrudgingly accepting the offered samples.
Then I heard a “plip!” as a raindrop hit my tray. “Plop!” Another joined it. “Plip, plop, plip!” came three together.
Attendees sped up as they walked by us.
“Keep sampling!” one of the managers called out.
We started to walk even more quickly than the attendees in an attempt to catch them before they got too far away.
“Plip, plop, plop, plip!”
Other vendors began to pull their tables and displays in to get them out of the coming rain.
“Plop, plop, plippity PLOP!”
Then all the plips and plops merged into one rush of sound as the skies opened up.
“Keep sampling!” came the call.
To who? we wondered. We were now literally running after people in the middle of a rainstorm begging them to take our hot dogs. No one, understandably, was interested, especially if they happened to glance at what was on the tray.
If you’ve never seen this phenomenon (and be very grateful if you haven’t),
when hot meat grease mixes with cold rainwater, the result is a clumpy, congealed mess. The stacks of coupons were soaked and beginning to morph into some kind of sad papier-mâché concoctions, and at that point we weren’t looking much better. The response from our managers?
(Imagine, if you will, being one of the attendees that day. You had planned a lovely Sunday afternoon with the kids at the festival, going out to enjoy some music, visit local vendors, get some fresh air and sunshine, and generally have a great time. Unfortunately, the skies have been gray all day, and now a rainstorm has begun.
As you head for cover, you find yourself being chased down by a horde of what look like escapees from a mental institute. Slogging their way through the ever-deepening river on the pavement, with water stains up to their khaki-clad knees and rain-sodden shirts the color of mustard with YES! in blood-red letters across their chests, the tortured creatures are reaching toward you with trays covered in wet wads of paper and cups of some kind of slimy grey-brown meat impaled with little spikes. With a hollow look of tormented exhaustion in their eyes, they shout something to you about “New York and Chicago” above the din of the rain and the wind, and as you break into a run, you cannot help but pity the desperate souls plagued with such insanity.)
Then, miracle of miracles, we were called back to the food truck. We thought that perhaps logic had finally won out in our managers’ minds and that they’d seen that this was one of the most obvious exercises in futility imaginable. But no.
Something in the food truck was broken, and it couldn’t cook any more hot dogs.
The promo gods had smiled down on us and delivered us from our misery. A wave of relief and celebration swept through the sampling team as we ran into the food truck to escape the deluge. We crouched there huddled together in the broken truck, surrounded by trays of curdled hot dog soup and sodden clumps of coupons as the storm raged on around us, the irony of our “YES!” shirts lost on no one.
This is just one of many stories I could tell… others include having an inflatable igloo collapse on us while we were inside it, getting covered head to toe with fiberglass (and being told it was no big deal), working in triple-digit heat while directly facing a 5-foot tall temperature display, getting spilled on, smoked on, and having someone spit directly into my eye, doing flyering work in a neighborhood where police were in the middle of chasing down a robber, and more. And believe me, my stories are not nearly the craziest ones out there.
So today, take a moment to pause and give thanks for the many independent workers out there who help keep our economy going. And please, if you pass any of us at a festival, just take the freaking hot dog.