SEATTLE, WA — As Chris Palmer recalls, it was the work that drove him to poverty.
Palmer was waiting tables in Astoria, Oregon, in 2017 when he saw an ad for a $25 per-hour job delivering for DoorDash in Seattle. He decided to leave the seasonal swings of the Oregon coast for what he thought would be a better job.
The $25-per-hour wage never materlized. Palmer says he earned about $7.50 per hour. Even busting 70-hour weeks, he couldn’t afford the $500 per-month RV he was renting. He moved into his van, and used state food assistance to make ends meet. It was a “secluded” time that haunts him today.
“There was no life in that,” he said of that part of his life.
Palmer’s struggle, although extreme, is in some ways common for workers in Washington. State records show that tens of thousands of workers received food assistance, called SNAP, over the last year while working for giants like Walmart, Safeway, and McDonald’s. Nearly 3,000 of those people, like Palmer, worked as contractors on-demand for companies like DoorDash, Lyft, and Uber.
SNAP is designed to be a temporary measure for low-income people as they “move toward self-sufficiency,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture says of the program. But the state data show that SNAP may be a more permanent feature for many workers.
This is the second year that Patch has obtained data from the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) on the 50 companies with the highest numbers of employees getting SNAP benefits.
Between June 2018 and June 2019, a total of 37,466 employees working for those 50 employers got SNAP. That’s an increase of about 200 compared to data from the same period between 2017 and 2018.
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Many of the companies on this year’s top 50 list changed position from last year, with some adding employees on SNAP, others reducing the amount.
From 2018: Wealthiest Companies In WA Employ Thousands On Food Stamps
Many of the companies we reached out to did not respond to questions. The ones that did said people choosing part-time or seasonal work for flexibility skew the numbers.
“On average, around half of all drivers in the U.S. drive fewer than 10 hours a week. It’s an important distinction that many people drive rideshare to bridge times between other jobs, during periods of unemployment, or to supplement their current income,” an Uber spokesperson said.
Several of the companies on the list are nonprofits, and the number of SNAP recpients might be an indicator of a transition out of poverty. Seattle Goodwill encourages its employees to get public assistance, if they’re eligible. The nonprofit had 957 individuals in Washington on SNAP statewide.
“Goodwill hires a lot of individuals who need their first chance and a job at Goodwill is one of their first steps out of poverty,” spokeswoman Katherine Boury said. “We encourage employees who need social services like SNAP to utilize them. For example, if an individual that has been formerly homeless and just started working at Goodwill they still might need the assistance of social services as they move out of poverty.”
Many companies on the list do lots of seasonal hiring. FedEx UPS, and Amazon ramp up hiring before Christmas, and Home Depot and Lowe’s do during spring. Target, which had 688 employees on SNAP in Washington, announced Tuesday it would hire 130,000 people for the 2019 holiday season — but those are all temporary jobs.
But labor advocates say that some employers cut employees hours to keep costs down. Walmart employs the most people in Washington who get food benefits at 3,419. A recent report on Walmart workers by the group Organization United for Respect said that half the company’s workforce is part-time as part of a “deliberate” strategy to offset Walmart’s new $11-per-hour companywide minimum wage.
“Walmart did not inform me until after I was hired that the store would cut my hours to part-time a few months after the grand opening. I went from working more than 40 hours a week at $11 an hour to being scheduled for only 16-24 hours each week,” a California Walmart worker told Organization United for Respect.
Either way, the SNAP numbers show that thousands of people in Washington are in need of public assistance to bridge gaps in their paychecks.
Each year, DSHS publishes an annual report on SNAP recipients. In 2018, about 872,000 people, including children, got SNAP. A majority were white women between the ages of 25 and 34, and King County had the highest number of recipients at about 177,000.
But one metric not included in that annual report is SNAP recipients’ employment status. Without that, it’s hard to tell if part-time or seasonal employees are a majority of working SNAP recipients in Washington.
In 2018, an Amazon spokesperson told Patch that the DSHS numbers are “misleading” because part-time and seasonal employees were included. But at the same time, companies aren’t handing out data on how many part-time employees they have vs. full-time.
The Organization United for Respect report estimates that about 50 percent of Walmart workers are part-time. Walmart employs about 19,000 people at its Washington stores, according to the company, and the average hourly wage here is $15.43 per hour — that includes only full-time workers.
The report goes on to say that the service industry has become dominated by part-time work since the 2008 recession, and that part-time work has lots of downsides for workers — lack of benefits, paycheck insecurity if hours change frequently, and a lack of opportunity for promotions.
UPS spokesman Dan McMackin counters that the company’s part-time jobs are a path to opportunity. The company employs about 7,500 people in Washington, and part-time workers earn an average wage of $17.92 per-hour, he said. Part-timers are also considered for any full-time opening, and pointed out that UPS CEO David Abney started off working part-time.
“We are proud of the wage and benefit package offered to all our employees. All of our part-time positions include full healthcare coverage (after a short waiting period), and that includes family coverage, which is unique,” McMackin said, listing other benefits available to part-timers, like tuition reimbursement (which Uber, Amazon, and Starbucks also offer in some cases) and pensions.
Some of the clearest data on SNAP employment comes from a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture study. Researchers compared traditional SNAP recipients to those who received job training. Researchers surveyed SNAP recipients from around the nation, including Washington, and found that 32.2 percent are working, and of that 56.1 percent worked full-time at least 35 hours per week.
The number of voluntary part-time workers, meanwhile, has grown over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But recent data show that the number of involuntary part-time workers — meaning people who can only find part-time work — grew year-over-year from 4.36 million in August 2018 to 4.38 million in August 2019.
In Washington, you can qualify for food stamps if you earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level — about $25,000 for a single person. But new rules proposed by the Trump administration would limit that to 130 percent of the poverty level, which could leave an estimated 175,000 Washingtonians ineligible for food assistance, local officials have said.
Even if the proposed Trump rule goes into effect, a single person in Washington could work a maximum of 28 hours per week earning the state’s $12 per-hour minimum wage and still meet SNAP income requirements.
Both the companies and the workers will say it: the biggest benefit of working in the gig economy is the ability to turn work on and off like a lightswitch.
But some employees say that flexibility comes with serious problems.
Gig employers like Instacart and Uber classify employees as independent contractors. That means they don’t get a minimum wage, vacation time, or even a guarantee that there will be work to do. DoorDash, for example, has taken driver tips to pad wages (the company says it will change that practice soon).
Ulysses Galvez began driving for Instacart more than a year ago. He sought gig work because of post-traumatic stress he was experiencing after serving as a combat medic with the Marines.
“I came back with my body, but my soul and my mind was broken,” he said recently. “It’s been a struggle to hold any 9-to-5 office job.”
The Instacart work paid well at first. But the company changed its pay structure to remove some bonuses, Galvez said. So he started driving for Postmates to make up the difference. Now he’s constantly looking for orders to pick up across multiple apps, and he frequently drives from his home in Silverdale to Tacoma and Seattle for work. He calls it a sort of “psychosis.”
“It’s getting to be pretty stressful. Once it starts to affect my mental health, I’m going to back off,” he said.
Galvez doesn’t need SNAP, but he knows there are plenty of drivers who do.
In 2016, Nancy Callahan got a taste of driving for Uber when a friend let her borrow a car. She couldn’t afford her own, so she started renting a Prius for $200 per week from a now-defunct company called Breeze. She used the car to work 10-hour shifts, earning about $100 per day after expenses. That car was also where she slept. She received a scant $16 monthly SNAP benefit.
“I should’ve qualified for more,” she says, highlighting all the expenses she had working as a driver.
Robert Bankers, of Tacoma, started working in the gig economy after his career as a chef was derailed by health problems. He started out with DoorDash, but got kicked off the app for talking about the tip-theft issue, he says. So he switched to driving for Uber Eats and Postmates. He recently got full-time job delivering packages for Amazon, but he plans to keep driving for Uber in his free time. He, his wife, and their two kids still receive SNAP, he says.
The App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) formed several years ago in Seattle as a union for rideshare drivers. But in May 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Seattle law allowing drivers to unionize. The organization has morphed into a lobbying group to push for wage standards, says Don Creery, an Uber and Lyft driver who sits on the ABDA leadership council.
Uber released a study in 2017 showing that its Seattle-area drivers earn between $19 and $21 per hour, before expenses, which range from $3 to $6.50 per hour. Creery says he earned about $26,000 in 2018 driving full-time. He’s lucky to be able to survive on that much, he said. But he knows others who aren’t — and flexible hours don’t make up for that.
“I’m willing to do this work because I want to continue living where I’m at,” he says. “On the flexibility issue, it’s what they use to excuse all the bad things they do — not paying social security, no health care, no vacation time. All the things they don’t do are under the excuse of flexibility. I’m really hesitant to consider that as a positive thing.”
About three years after Palmer moved to the area to work for DoorDash, he’s become an activist for gig-economy workers. He spoke about his experiences at a Sept. 5 rally in Bellevue for gig-worker rights, and he has started YouTube channel about the industry.
He’s also come a long way since he was living in his van. He has an apartment in Everett with a roommate, and works a steady job waiting tables at a Denny’s in Monroe. It’s not full-time, but the wages are stable, and his customers are good tippers. He doesn’t get food assistance, either.
Palmer still does delivery for on-demand companies like Postmates and DoorDash. He wants to keep an eye on the companies, and he wants on-demand employers step up and start paying so contractors can focus on the job.
“I really do love the work,” he says of his days working more than full-time in the gig economy.
Here’s the full list of the top 50 employees by number of employees receiving SNAP. The time period for each column is June to June. For example, the 2019 column covers June 2018 to June 2019. An “N/A” indicates a company was not on last year’s list. The numbers for each company are statewide, not regional.