Working Without Pay, California Mom Turns to Gigs

Husband also taking gig work, teen daughter pitching in too

Roxann Crawford never imagined she would be back in this situation.

Just as she did years ago when she was a young mother just starting out, she is again scrambling for side jobs to pay the bills, lining up at food banks to help feed her family and seeking free school lunches.

The big difference is that unlike then, when she did not have a full-time job, she now has a career, a dream job in fact. She works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Oakland, California, as a disability integration specialist.

The partial government shutdown that began last month has forced Crawford, who is 35, married and the mother of a 7-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, to take an unwelcome and humiliating trip back to her past.

Crawford has been deployed to the California wildfires, working 10 hours a day, six days a week to help people with disabilities recover from the devastation, all without a paycheck since the shutdown began as she was deemed an essential employee.

Like many federal workers affected by the shutdown, Crawford, the main breadwinner in her household, is turning to gig work, working at night after her FEMA job.

“Being here again is kind of traumatic,” Crawford, of Roseville, California, said through tears over the phone. “I worked really hard to get this job, and I love my job. I never thought we’d be here again.”

”As I’m standing in line in food banks, I’m like, ‘This is the cycle of life,’” she added. “I can’t believe this is happening right now.”

But with no savings, and with bills to pay and a “pretty extraordinary amount” of debt, Crawford is thankful for the modern gig sector and is amazed at the ease of applying for work from her smartphone.

“I’m so grateful for a better gig economy than there ever was before,” she said. “I look back at the way I was making gig work happen when I was a young mom and we didn’t have smartphones or apps where people could order food. I had to go to temp agencies. Now it’s right here in my hand ”

Crawford has signed up to work through TaskRabbit, is about to start delivering for Postmates and just passed her background check to drive for UberEats. She’s applied for jobs at the mall, and is going to try to work as much as she can.

Roxann Crawford Sewing A Figure Skating Dress
Roxann Crawford pinning roller figure skating practice dresses. She is sewing for a local skater.

She is making money from her sewing. Crawford sews skating dresses for her daughter, who is a high-level competitive roller figure skater, and put the word out about 2 ½ weeks ago that she would make custom practice dresses for other skaters.

Though she was nervous about creating for others, she now has orders to make 10 dresses, which will bring a profit of between $15 to $30 a piece depending on materials, and orders for some boys skating clothing as well.

“I’ll work all day, and I’ll go home and I’ll feed the kids dinner, and then I will go get in my car and I will deliver food for as long as I can stay awake,” Crawford said. “That’s my big plan. If I get too tired to drive, I can go home and sew. It’s a lot safer to sew tired than it is to drive tired.”

Her husband, who has a mobility disability and does not regularly work, has been driving for Postmates and UberEats when he can. The money he brings in, Crawford says, is “good enough and a lifesaver.” And their daughter, who works at the roller rink, has voluntarily contributed her last two paychecks to the family.

“It’s humbling as a parent to accept your 15-year-old’s paycheck,” Crawford said.

But the gig income is required to stay afloat, even as the family prioritizes their bills.

“Dollar by dollar, it all helps,” Crawford said. “It’s below minimum wage, but we’re doing it because we have no other options.”

Crawford, understandably exhausted, manages to stay upbeat.

“I’m trying to stay really positive and keep a good mental tone,” she said. “I have breakdowns throughout the day because I’m tired and I’m stressed out and because I don’t know when it’s going to end.

A silver lining is the back pay she is expecting when the shutdown is over, even though, she said, “it will just go to bills.”