TaskRabbit: a jobs lifeline for some unemployed

TaskRabbit is a short-term jobs service that pairs the unemployed and underemployed with people who need specific chores done.

By , Correspondent

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    Jennifer Smith is a graduate student in Waltham, Mass., who earns money by doing short-term jobs listed on TaskRabbit, an online service operating in Boston and San Francisco.
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It’s a sunny, hot Friday afternoon in August and Jennifer Smith is out running errands. She whips back her long hair and secures big sunglasses onto the top of her head as she slides into the driver’s seat of her SUV, ready to hit the sizzling Boston pavement and check a few items off the to-do list.

But it’s not her to-do list. It’s Holly Hughes’s.

Ms. Hughes has hired Ms. Smith to perform one of those little tasks that never seem to get done: take a bag of old clothes and books to a donation center.

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“This bag’s been sitting in my room for months,” says Hughes, as she hands Smith a bulky plastic bag in her living room. For $10 Smith will take care of it for her. She’s looked up the nearest donation center (which turns out to be about a mile away) and heads downstairs to cart it off.

Smith will perform three or so similar jobs this week. She might walk someone’s dog, remove unruly brush from an overgrown backyard, or find an reliable contractor for a routine repair on a tight budget. By the end of the month, she’ll have earned several hundred dollars by doing other people’s most mundane tasks.

She’s a runner for TaskRabbit, an online service that pairs people like Jennifer, a graduate student with free time during the day, with people like Hughes, who needs a hand, and is willing to pay for it.

The website, which has been around since 2008, but recently changed its name to TaskRabbit and expanded to include both the San Francisco Bay Area as well as Boston, seems perfectly suited to today’s dismal job market: It offers an immediate paycheck to people who are students, like Jennifer, or, increasingly, the unemployed.

As Friday’s job report shows, the economy shed more jobs than it created in July: Some 131,000 newly laid off workers will join America’s 14.6 million unemployed. Even the number of temporary workers, which had been up the previous months as companies looked tentatively to expand, were down slightly last month.

About 70 percent of TaskRabbit’s ‘runners’ are unemployed or underemployed, according to a company spokeswoman. It’s a trend Jennifer’s noticed among her fellow runners.

“It’s not only people who’ve had their hours cut back,” she says, while winding her way through suburban Boston's streets. “It’s a lot of people just getting on the job market. One runner just graduated from college.”

Without the service, “a lot of runners would really be hurting,” says Smith. And not just because of the decreased income. “This job can really boost your morale and get your self esteem up,” she explains. “You’re not just sitting around your house. You’re going out and helping someone.”

While Americans are spending less on consumer goods, they seem perfectly willing to spend more on getting things done a little quicker. Smith says she’s noticed a significant jump in the number of posts on the site in the last several months. And TaskRabbit is planning on expanding to a third city.

“For me, it’s worth it to not have to spend my time and energy,” says Hughes, about paying to get her errands done. She adds that another of the tasks she listed recently – building shelves in her bedroom – required skills and tools she didn’t have. She says she likes “being able to support members of the local community” by using the service.

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