The Pandemic And The Side-Hustle Renaissance

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Labor Day 2020 has an unfortunate cloud hanging over it: a high U.S. unemployment rate, even as the nation engages in its annual celebration of workers. While the holiday barbecues will roll on (socially distanced, of course), there will be millions of workers wondering when exactly they’ll rejoin the workforce and start laboring once again.

The good news on that front is that the jobless rate continues to fall. The U.S. Labor Department reported on Friday (Sept. 4) that unemployment came in at 8.4 percent for August, well below the 9.2 percent that economists had expected and a big improvement from April’s record 14.7 percent.

Still, the decline is more sluggish than most would like, and for those 8.4 percent of Americans still without a job, times remain stressful and uncertain. But you know what they say about dark clouds: They often come with a silver lining.

And in the case of a labor market that’s gone topsy-turvy in recent months, that silver lining is the raw creativity of America’s workforce in finding work, even when traditional jobs are hard to come by. In fact, many U.S. workers have created what can best be called a “side-hustle renaissance,” with very different types of gigs done by very different kinds of workers than in years past.


Consider Kara Jones and Becky Robinson, both of whom recently told CNBC that prior to the pandemic, they’d been regular salary workers. They suddenly found themselves laid off after their physical workspaces closed up shop.

However, both also discovered that it was possible to generate at least some income by doing such things as taking surveys on the internet. Possible but not always easy.

While filling out the surveys isn’t hard, Robinson noted that in most cases, it doesn’t pay well. But she said the rewards of the work can also be measured in non-monetary ways.

She pointed out that being part of market research offers an opportunity to feel relevant. “Something where you can influence a brand or a product, it’s cool, and you feel like these people who interview you actually listen to you,” she said. “It makes you feel important.”

Jones, who’s gotten a new full-time job but still does side work to build up a rainy-day fund, runs her efforts like a small business. She told CNBC she tracks side-hustle websites on a spreadsheet to figure out which gigs offer “the highest ROI,” or return on investment.

Durian-Fruit Deliverers

Other “pandemic-preneurs” like Chris Meechukant have had to pivot because they operated businesses that couldn’t stay open. In Meechukant’s case, that was a Thai restaurant in Santa Ana, California.

The eatery first pivoted to takeout. Then, Meechukant made an even bigger move to start delivering durian fruit (popular in Thailand and Malaysia) with his cousin, Tou, founder of the Atipat Trading Co., a meal-kit business specializing in boat noodles.

The cousins decided that Americans needed more durian, a fruit with a spiky outside, a strange smell and a sweet taste. So, the pair began delivering the fruit to consumers by bike this summer after Chris posted a notice on the Asian Hustle Network’s Facebook group.

“The smell is mild compared to the ones you’d find in the market,” he wrote. “Why is this? Because it isn’t overly ripe and the fruits have never been frozen, therefore SUPER FRESH!”

He was immediately flooded with orders. “I didn’t believe it until I saw it,” Chris said.

The Meechukant cousins’ durian costs $35 for a box of two to three pods, depending on the net weight. The high price stems from the fact that finding a good durian is a hard job: The skin has to be a “a little dry and crispy, so you have a little crack and pop when you bite into it,” Chris told local media.

The Cheeseboard Maker

It’s not only food professionals dipping into the world of snack-related side hustles.

When the pandemic forced Melissa Shear, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney with the District of Columbia attorney general’s office, to work from home, she launched CheezMD as a side hustle.

“Everyone has their signature dish that they make,” Shear told the Washington City Paper. “That was my signature dish.”

Her standard snack boards include crackers, fresh seasonal produce, dried fruit, nuts, jams, honeys and compotes. There’s also a sweet of some kind and, of course, a whole lot of cheeses and meats.

“I’m not saying I’m a classically trained chef, but when you see what goes into the board, what you have to buy and how much you would have left over, it’s a lot,” Shear said.

The boards, designed to feed four to 10 snackers, run $100 to $150. Shear also offers picnic boxes for $20 to $65, but those are smaller and can’t be custom-made.

A Labor of Love

While many Americans complain about their work and celebrate the concept of work on Labor Day by taking a day off they often like doing it for reasons beyond just bringing in money.

Whether that means sharing their opinions for profit, delivering rare fruit by bike or finding a way to perfectly present prosciutto, an increasing number of U.S. workers are finding jobs that utilize digital technology and a lot of creativity. So even if we can’t have the parades this Labor Day, there’s still something about all of that creative labor that deserves a tip of the hat today.

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