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The good and the bad of gig work in Flagstaff

The firefighter who drives for Uber and Lyft during his time off.

The digital designer who juggles five projects at a time for clients across the country.

The young couple that works full time and rents out a room on Airbnb to help pay their mortgage and bills.

All are faces of the diverse and fast-growing gig economy in Flagstaff. The quick-to-say-harder-to-define term has a broad umbrella, covering jobs — from IT consultant to part-time Instacart shopper — that are defined by shorter term arrangements and tend to operate on a contract or on-demand basis without a guarantee of steady hours and pay.

Recent polls show that up to one in four workers earn some money through the gig economy and a 2017 survey by Upwork and Freelancers Union estimates that within a decade freelancers and contractors will make up more than half of the workforce.

Local numbers show the gig scene is gaining ground in Flagstaff as well. Drivers with the online platforms Uber and Lyft are as common as taxis, the number of local Airbnb listings has topped 500 and gig-based delivery services like LoDel, GoPuff and Instacart are quickly launching operations in town.

From the standpoint of workers, experts say a trio of factors — the desirable location, more limited job opportunities and a high cost of living — make gig jobs even more appealing here.

“It’s a way for regular people to supplement their income and Flagstaff is known for being a high cost of living, so it kind of goes hand in hand I think,” said Diana White, director of the Coconino County Small Business Development Center.


Though smartphone-based online platforms have propelled gig work to a new level of popularity, this type of contract and freelance-dominated occupation isn’t entirely new in Flagstaff. Worker surveys show many people move to Flagstaff because they can live here and work remotely, and that group includes many contractors and freelancers whose clients are elsewhere, said John Stigmon, with Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona.

One place where that’s especially true is the digital technology sector, said Scott Hathcock, president and CEO at the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

“It’s an untethered job opportunity,” he said. “So a contractor can still make six figures but enjoy the town and the lifestyle.”

That’s the case for Tommy O’Connor, an independent digital product designer who said 80 percent of his work comes from clients outside of Flagstaff. He juggles between four and five projects at a time while his wife runs their small design studio. The opportunities for full-time design work in Flagstaff are few, so going the freelance route is the only way O’Connor said he can live here, do what he loves and earn enough to cover the costs of raising three young children. That alone is no small feat -- the family spends $4,200 each month on daycare and health insurance alone.


Employer-provided health insurance is one of many benefits, from retirement contributions to paid sick leave, that workers in gig jobs tend to lack. Many also miss out on standard protections like workers’ compensation, coverage by federal anti-discrimination laws, unemployment insurance and the ability to participate in collective bargaining.

According to the Industrial Commission of Arizona, the state’s minimum wage does not apply to independent contractors, which is the classification of many gig workers. A 2016 law in Arizona reaffirmed that classification, which makes it more difficult for workers to claim a right to state-run benefit programs, according to a report from The PEW Charitable Trusts.

While the rise in gig work has been driven in part by employees willfully abandoning steady 9-to-5 jobs, a much stronger force appears to be demand among employers that see opportunities to shed certain costs and exposure to liability by hiring contract employees instead of full-time ones, said Wade Rousse, interim director of the Alliance Bank Economic Policy Institute at Northern Arizona University.

The trend seems to have taken off during the Great Recession when companies were looking for ways to cut costs and has continued since then, he said.

Rousse said he worries a shift to contract work could have negative implications for measures like employee job security and the cost of healthcare if fewer people have employer-provided health insurance. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that so-called contingent workers often earn lower incomes, receive fewer benefits and rely heavily on public assistance compared to individuals in standard work arrangements.

One Flagstaff Uber driver, Rafael Anderson, said he typically works 54 hours a week and earns about $800 before gas expenses. That works out to about $15 an hour, which is less than the living wage in Coconino County.

Many times the gig work also results in job shifting rather than job growth, Rousse said. Employers cutting full time jobs like writers or laborers only to hire those same services on a contract basis, are one example, he said.

That shift is glaringly obvious in the taxi cab business.

“Uber has had a huge impact on the taxi business in town,” said Brian Mishmash from Gypsy Cab Flagstaff.

Mishmash said the number of fares he gets on a regular basis has plunged since Uber and Lyft showed up in town.


There are also inherent benefits of gig work, including the ability for individuals to keep their own, more flexible hours, be their own employer and “control their own destiny,” Rousse said. Those were many of the points echoed by local gig workers who were interviewed by the Daily Sun.

The expansion of freelancers and contract workers in various fields is a benefit for small businesses as well, said White, of the Small Business Development Center. It means they now have more choices and more competitive prices for everything from bookkeeping to website design services if they can’t afford a full-time employee, she said.

“All of these things, the whole gig movement just gives the Davids of the world a better way to keep up with the Goliaths,” she said.

And in a city where available office and building space is already in high demand, gig-type jobs are especially welcome because they don’t often require large new development, Stigmon said.

As in O’Connor’s case, such work also can allow people to earn more than they would if they were limited to single-employer jobs in Flagstaff.

There are ups and downs of gig work, depending on the circumstances, Rousse said.

“If you're entrepreneurial in spirit I think the gig economy is creating a lot of awesome stuff,” he said. “If you're forced into the gig economy and have to deal with the stress of acting like an entrepreneur if you’re not, then its negative.”

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Online gig companies find ready Flagstaff workers

A range of online gig-based companies have taken root in the Flagstaff market, offering everything from rides to takeout delivery services.

Airbnb, which allows homeowners to offer part or all of their homes for short-term rentals, has seen guest arrivals in Flagstaff nearly double from about 49,000 in 2016 to 91,600 in 2017. There are more than 500 active listings in the Flagstaff area and hosts earned a combined $7.6 million in 2017, the company reported. The typical Arizona host earned $6,100 last year, the company stated.

The driving service Uber launched in Flagstaff in 2014 and Lyft entered the market two years later.

Uber has seen steady growth in Flagstaff over the last three years, company spokeswoman Stephanie Sedlak said in an email.

“Drivers use Uber for flexible work,” Sedlak said. “More than half of (Arizona) drivers drive 10 hours or less per week, meaning most drive part-time or to earn extra income.”

A company representative for Lyft did not respond to inquiries about how many of its drivers operate in Flagstaff.

Instacart opened in Flagstaff last month and already has more than 100 people signed up to be “shoppers” that go to stores, pick up orders and deliver them to customers, according to Joseph Benz, an operations manager at Instacart.

A similar delivery service, goPuff, opened in Flagstaff in January. The company stocks everything from edible underwear and marijuana grinders to food and general convenience store items in its local warehouse and uses contract drivers to deliver them.

LoDel, a meal delivery service that launched in town in 2016, similarly uses contract drivers to deliver takeout from local restaurants.

Josh Biggs, Arizona Daily Sun file 

Former Northern Arizona guard Josh Wilson drives past Portland State's Dominic Waters (11) during a quadruple overtime loss in 2009.

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Copley endorses Evans for mayor; "discourteous" pair remains unnamed

Former Flagstaff City Manager Josh Copley, who resigned the position last month, endorsed Mayor Coral Evans in her reelection campaign this week.

“Without reservation, I will be supporting Mayor Evans in the upcoming election and am confident in her ability and determination to help carry out our mission to improve the quality of life for everyone in our community,” Copley said in an email.

Copley said over the phone that he felt compelled to publicly endorse Evans after hearing that members of the community had made the incorrect assumption Evans was one of the two council members he referred to in his resignation letter as behaving in a “discourteous and unprofessional” manner.

“While I still don’t want to name the two, I would like to make it clear Mayor Evans is not one of them,” Copley said.

No one has officially opposed Evans for mayor so far. Councilwoman Celia Barotz, who announced she would not be seeking reelection to her council seat, posted on Facebook Wednesday she was “thinking of running for mayor.” When reached by phone Wednesday, Barotz said she so far is only considering running and has not yet made the decision.

In his resignation letter, Copley said he had come to expect discourteous behavior from the two unnamed members of the council.

“Over the course of the past few months, I have repeatedly been treated in an unprofessional and discourteous manner by two city council members who seem to be more concerned with their political ambitions and personal agendas than the good of the city as a whole,” Copley wrote in his letter of resignation.

So far, members of the council have remained tight-lipped about who the two council members are, and none has publicly identified them.

Copley said, in his opinion, the identities do not matter at this point, but it was not fair for Evans to be blamed when she was not one of the two.

“While the mayor has no more power than any other council member when it comes to voting on the important issues facing our community, the position is critically important in fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and willingness to hear and consider the diverse viewpoints and perspectives of all of our citizens,” Copley said. “Mayor Evans possesses the qualities and character to successfully perform in this demanding role.”

Copley said he considers “Mayor Evans to be a very effective leader and exemplary mayor. As City Manager, I enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Mayor Evans and always found her to be thoughtful, considerate and respectful in our dialogue. I believe Mayor Evans is the right person to lead the Flagstaff City Council at this time.”

Evans said she was grateful for Copley’s endorsement.

“Josh is a decent, kind and thoughtful man and I deeply appreciate his support,” Evans said in a text message. “He served our community and country faithfully for many years, for which we should all be grateful. His example of service and dedication is one to aspire to, and I wish him nothing but the best.”

Ben Forstie, one of the owners of The Barn Bros, said he has not decided if he is running for mayor or city council yet.

Josh Copley

Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa / Courtesy