At 30 years old, Jacob Pierpont has finally found a job he likes.
Pierpont makes his own schedule, earns more than he ever did working a $10 an hour job at a retirement home, and his only boss is a smartphone app that delivers available assignments every night.
He is one of hundreds of San Antonio residents that have taken up charging electric scooters, the rentable and smartphone-enabled vehicles that cropped up in the city’s urban core last year. Scooter companies Lime and Bird, both headquartered in California, hire independent contractors like Pierpont to collect the scooters, charge them, and then place them in scooter-heavy zones the next day. None of the other e-scooter operators – Razor, Blue Duck Scooters, Lyft, and Spin – have opted to deploy independent contractors to charge scooters.
As the City of San Antonio whittles a six-company field down to three, however, the future of these gig workers is up in the air. If neither Bird nor Lime is offered a contract to continue operating in the city beyond September, Pierpont said he’d have to try to find work in the retail sector or service industry. That prospect makes him nervous.
“I hope that’s not the case,” he said. “I honestly feel like this is the first time in my life I have found something I enjoy doing. I enjoy going to work.”
More than a third of adults in the U.S. have participated in the gig economy, a growing pool of freelance workers increasingly used by tech companies whose algorithm-powered smartphone apps put odd jobs at the fingertips of their contractors. More than 750 Facebook users are part of a group called Scooter Chargers of San Antonio. Many of Bird’s chargers and Lime’s “juicers” have scored hundreds of dollars a night picking up dead or low-on-battery scooters and plugging them in to recharge overnight.
In recent months, however, the gold rush of scooter charging appears to have slowed. Mark LeBaron, a member of the San Antonio charger group, lamented the apparent decline.
“I miss the days of last year,” LeBaron wrote in a June post. “Damn, compared to now … that shit was fun. Now it’s just table scraps.”
City Council will weigh bids this fall and pick three vendors to operate dockless vehicles in San Antonio moving forward. Though Bird and Lime have operated the longest and are the most proven companies in the market, the way Bird launched – unannounced and without notifying the City – ruffled feathers among the Council members.
The Rivard Report previously confirmed 10 companies planned to submit a bid, but the City expects to receive as many as a dozen – and perhaps more – submissions.
Although gig work is often advertised as a way to earn extra money, many like Pierpont rely on gigging as a primary source of income, not a side hustle. Ousting Bird and Lime would shrink San Antonio’s gig economy.
According to the U.S. Census, gig work such as driving for Uber or Lyft, contract parcel delivery for Amazon, doing other people’s grocery shopping on platforms such as Shipt has exploded. This is especially true in Texas, where more than 500,000 joined the gig economy from 2006 to 2016.
But gig workers are particularly vulnerable to abusive labor practices, said Laura Padin, a senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project. As non-employees, they have fewer mechanisms for having their grievances redressed.
Not to mention, because they work on a contract basis, they are not protected by minimum wage laws. Theoretically, a scooter charger could work several hours trying to locate and collect scooters, but at $3 or $4 per scooter, he or she might make less than the minimum wage if their scooter haul is under a dozen.
“When workers are treated as independent contractors, they don’t have any of the benefits or protections that attach to employees,” Padin said.
That includes workers compensation.
Padin said injuries are common in gig work, especially jobs that require operating a vehicle. Most scooter chargers drive their vehicles to pick up scooters and load them onto their truck beds or into their vans or sport utility vehicles.
Scooter charging is also a hypercompetitive space in which many people are often vying for the same vehicles. And with the City reducing the number of permitted dockless vehicles from 16,100 to less than a third of that amount, chargers will have fewer bounties to collect. It’s not uncommon for this to result in altercations between chargers, said several people who have charged scooters for Bird and Lime.
Pierpont was picking up scooters near the University of Texas at San Antonio campus in January when a man swung a two-by-four at him. His family member, who was driving Pierpont’s vehicle while Pierpont collected scooters, drove in between the weapon-wielder and Pierpont to separate them.
“He got real irate that I got to a set of [scooters] before him,” Pierpont said of the would-be assailant. “I was almost assaulted.”
Some scooter chargers found ways to game the system in the early days of charging.
Reports of scooter “hoarders” flooded online forums like the San Antonio scooter charger group on Facebook. Hoarders will stash away scooters in hard-to-reach or enclosed spots for easy collecting later. It’s the kind of cheat that seems obvious in this high-stakes scavenger hunt, and one that Bird and Lime have worked to stamp out.
In March, Lime began rolling out a new feature that allows chargers to reserve scooters using the app for 30 minutes. The reserve feature limits the potential for conflict between Lime’s juicers, said Joe Deshotel, the company’s community affairs manager for Texas.
“We thought this feature made it fairer,” Deshotel said. “We don’t want to waste [juicers’] time.”
Dee Martinez, who supplements her income from her full-time job in the medical field by charging scooters, has all but abandoned the Lime juicer program entirely as the company has shifted its logistics strategy to employ more in-house staff, Martinez said. Lately, she has had more luck finding Birds to charge.
Lime employs dozens of full-time employees to collect, maintain, repair, charge, and deploy scooters out of its inner-city San Antonio warehouse, Deshotel said. The company has started to rely more on its employees than its juicers, he said, but he doesn’t foresee the juicer program going away anytime soon.
“You may see that we are relying more heavily on internal operations, but that’s not a reflection on the juicer program being successful or not,” he said.
Lime is slated to announce a significant increase in local hiring as it builds its San Antonio operations, Deshotel said.
“I think [providing more full-time jobs] is, on balance, a good thing,” he said.
For its part, Bird maintains a service center in San Antonio with local mechanics and drivers, a spokesperson said in a statement. But it still relies on a network of gig workers to charge its scooters.
The City’s request for proposals does not state a preference for how scooter operators deploy their vehicles – just as long as they are responsive when issues arise, said John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations, a City employee who has overseen San Antonio’s scooter program.
“It’s up to the companies to explain to the committee and myself why their plan is better maybe than somebody else’s,” Jacks said.
Although he has had run-ins with unsavory scooter chargers, Pierpont said the “rat race” early days of scooter charging appear to be long gone. He said he has seen vast improvements in both the safety for scooter chargers and better scooter deployment by the chargers and their full-time counterparts with Lime and Bird.
“I hope that when San Antonio comes around to making its decision of the three companies that they consider … there are local people here that are relying on these companies for income,” he said. “I hope they trust in the ecosystem and let it improve.”