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Seniors make up a large chunk of Florida’s gig workers

How has the pandemic changed things for Tampa Bay's older Uber drivers, grocery shoppers and part-time workers?

Esther Aponte took the plunge and started shopping for Shipt full time in March, right before the pandemic hit. The 62-year-old hated her job at a call center, and knew she could make better money with the grocery shopping delivery service. So she took early retirement.

In four days of shopping at her local Winn-Dixie and Publix for others, Aponte can make all that she needs to pay the bills. She can pay for groceries, help with the rent on the 900-square-foot Holiday home she shares with her daughter, and take care of her dogs - Lincoln the Greyhound and a Terrier mix named Sassy.

Plus, the job gives Aponte just enough socialization for her mental health.

Aponte is one of a large population of Florida seniors who work part-time gigs with Uber, Postmates and other tech services to make ends meet. For many, Social Security payouts don’t cover the rising price of groceries, rent and medicine. Part-time work for apps like Instacart or Lyft offer the opportunity to get out of the house, to talk to strangers and to just drive.

While many seniors initially stayed home in March and April as shelter-in-place mandates rolled out across the state, others have returned to their jobs during the pandemic in order to pay the bills.

“I’m the kind of person I take life as it goes. I believe you’re going to die somehow,” Aponte said about working during the pandemic. “When your time is up, it’s up. I’m a risk taker.”

The demand for transportation services, like Uber or Lyft, has dropped significantly during the pandemic, but interest in delivery services like Shipt or Instacart, is increasing, said Dmitri Koustas, assistant professor in the Harris Public Policy program at The University of Chicago.

While the majority of gig workers tend to be young men, Koustas said, there’s also a growing segment among older Americans. Workers ages 55 to 75 make up about 27 percent of gig and contract work, and 11 percent in new online platforms, Koustas said, based on the latest tax data. As of 2017, more than 400,000 seniors held some type of part-time job on online platforms, according to a study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Esther Aponte, 62, of Holiday, exits a Publix with a Shipt order Friday, Aug. 21, 2020 in Holiday. Aponte started working for Shipt after quitting a full-time job in January. "I plan on staying with them for however long they keep me." Said Aponte. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Uber is seeing a “a larger number of older drivers and delivery people in Pinellas, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Palm Beach,” according to Javier Correoso, a spokesman for the rideshare app in Florida.

These jobs are alluring to the boomer demographic for a number of reasons, said Jeff Johnson, the Florida director for AARP. People who retired without pensions or savings need a way to still generate income. Gig work offers flexibility in terms of hours and scheduling. And there’s less age discrimination when workers are essentially their own boss.

“Social Security is a great safety net to keep people out of poverty, but generally such payments are not enough help people live at a comfortable lifestyle,” he said.

For Thomas Wilber, a 72-year-old Wesley Chapel resident, driving Uber was all about the routine. The retired software developer liked driving and that he didn’t have to ask the boss for the day off.

“You feel good about yourself at the end of the day,” he said. “Like you’ve been productive.”

Wilber didn’t need the supplemental income, though he said he liked the tax break. He would start in the morning and usually pick up a ride to Tampa. If it was slow he would head home, but sometimes he would stay out until 10 p.m.

When the coronavirus reached Florida in March, he deleted the Uber app.

“At the time I was 71 and getting the virus was like a death sentence,” Wilber said.

Instead, he picked up a gig as a courier, picking up materials from different animal hospitals and dropping them off at a laboratory in Sarasota.

“The bad thing is they don’t really give you a day off,” he added. “And you hope they don’t give your route to anyone else.”

Esther Aponte, 62, of Holiday, waves to a client after unloading groceries Friday, Aug. 21, 2020 in Holiday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Patricia Hulse, has been driving Uber for over six years. The Brooksville resident will be 65 in December. While Hulse stayed home in the spring because of the pandemic, her bills piled up.

“Even if I knew I could have driven, I probably wouldn’t have because I was scared,” Hulse said.

Her friends gifted her cash for groceries. One elderly friend loaned Hulse money to make her insurance and rent payments. She applied for food stamps.

“I went back to work because I had bills to pay,” she said. “It was out of necessity that I went back.”

Now she’s back driving Tampa residents around town three days a week. But the routine feels different, she said.

Hulse keeps hand sanitizer in the car. Everyone wear a mask. Before each shift, she sprays the door handles with alcohol spray.

She’s busier now than she was before the pandemic. Hulse can make $400 in a night she typically would have made $300 earlier in the year.

“I’m not overly fearful of the pandemic because I keep myself sanitized,” she said.

Correction: Esther Aponte is 62. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age.

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