Freelancers often undergo background checks and personal interviews to make clients feel secure.  But almost anyone can register as a client at online job platforms. That can put freelancers in dangerous and precarious situations, leading to side hustle horror stories.

Side hustle horror stories

An Uber driver named Hector, for instance, says he was conscripted for a day of drug-running. The client who hailed him kept requiring him to stop and add riders, who got in and out of the car, transacting drug deals while he waited. Without so much as a fountain pen to protect himself, Hector said he was afraid to refuse.

Meanwhile, a woman who worked through TaskRabbit, only narrowly avoided cleaning for a sex offender. Something in the way the client responded when she accepted the job made her start Googling. When the address came up on a sex offender database, she canceled.

“You’ve got to listen to your gut,” says Alexandrea J. Ravenelle, author of “Hustle and Gig,” a book about the dangers of the freelance economy.

Ravenelle, who conducted hundreds of interviews with more than 80 gig workers, heard dozens of side hustle horror stories, including Hector’s and that of the TaskRabbit worker. Other freelancers said they’d been exposed to noxious chemicals; got injured while lifting heavy objects; were sexually harassed; or were expected to break the law.

To be sure, horror stories happen in traditional workplaces too. But when you’re an employee, a legal framework protects you from many abuses, from wage theft to harassment. Freelancers, on the other hand, need to protect themselves.

Look for W-2 platforms:

Ravenelle is an advocate of finding flexible jobs that will hire you as an actual employee. That’s because employees have rights. They have the right to earn at least minimum wage, get overtime pay, and be covered by workers compensation insurance, to name a few. (Worker’s comp covers you if you’re injured on the job.)

Independent contractors get none of these protections. But, unfortunately, that’s how most online platforms classify freelancers. There are exceptions, however. A handful of job platforms hire freelancers as W-2 employees and simply allow them to telecommute or work flexible hours. These platforms include: (accounting); ManagedbyQ (cleaning/office services); Trusted (child care); Jitjatjo (food service); CoolWorks and XanterraJobs (seasonal work) and Worldwide 101 (virtual assistants).

Build a regular clientele

Establish personal connections with your best clients, suggests Chinwe Onyeagoro, chief executive of PocketSuite. That way, the client can come to you directly for future work, which keeps you busy working for people you like and saves you time looking for new clients. If the client comes to you outside of the platform where you first met, it can save you money too. Most online platforms charge commissions on the work you sell through them.

How can you establish that connection when many online platforms discourage or prohibit direct communication between worker and client? If you perform jobs in person, take along business cards so the client knows you name and contact information.

If you do the job online, find out what you can about the client and look for ways to call or email, she suggests. When that’s not possible, at least be sure to capture screen shots of your reviews and samples of your work to use to market yourself on your own website.

Choose platforms carefully:

Communicating directly with clients while working for platforms that prohibit it, could get you booted. But you should also consider such rules a warning. Platforms that charge modest fees to market your services, such as Rover and LessonFace, don’t have trouble retaining workers and clients. So they don’t need to prohibit direct communication.

Other rules disclosed in platform “terms and conditions” can also be problematic. For instance, many of the most significant complaints that Ravenelle heard were from “taskers” at TaskRabbit, which used to demand that workers accept 85% of the jobs presented to them. A few bad reviews also could get workers kicked off the platform.

That’s one of the reasons why one “tasker,” who was asked to clean up noxious chemicals without proper equipment felt she had to complete the job. And it was why another agreed to lift such heavy items that she ended up suffering with chronic back problems, Ravenelle says.

(TaskRabbit has since revamped its terms and is now one of the more attractive sites to find work.)

Take safety precautions

If you’re working in someone’s home, Google the address. If you know it, Google the name of the client, too. A quick search could alert you to any obvious problems. Also let a friend or family member know where you are and when you’re expected back.

If you are a ride-share driver and your location and hours are not predictable, think through how you’ll handle problems. Many Uber and Lyft drivers say they carry self-protection devices, such as pepper spray gel and hand-tasers. One says she brings her “service dog” along at night. Yet another says she does a quick assessment of the person she’s picking up before she unlocks the door. If she thinks the passenger is shady, she cancels the ride and drives away.

Also refuse jobs that put your health, safety or liberty at risk, such as lifting overly heavy objects or engaging in anything legally questionable. Online platforms disclaim any liability for the independent contractors that use their services. They will not stand behind you with a team of doctors or lawyers, if you break your back or the law while following their instructions.

Listen to your gut

Like the cleaner who narrowly avoided working for a sex offender, your gut reaction often tells you when something is amiss, Ravenele says. Listen. If a job looks suspicious, turn it down. If a client makes you uncomfortable when you show up in person, walk away.

There are hundreds of online job platforms. If one kicks you off because you refused to do something illegal, immoral or dangerous, it’s easy to find another job.

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