Mike Westell, 33, a bike mechanic and tattoo artist who lives in Santa Monica, started a new gig two weeks ago. He mostly repairs vehicles when he wants and where he finds them, occasionally bringing them into a friend’s garage for further work.
Training was simple: sign up, take an online video course, receive a set of tools in the mail, then get to work. He even picks his own hours.
“The pay is pretty good if you hustle,” he says.
Westell represents a new type of independent contractor in the gig economy: a mechanic for Bird, one of a proliferating number of electric scooter start-ups trying to add a new option to the ever-crowded city transit landscape.
As cities figure out how to react to and regulate this new transit option, the conversation often focuses on infrastructure. How can city streets and sidewalks accommodate a new form of transportation, and how can these scooters fit in without being a safety hazard and getting in the way of pedestrians?
Competitors have scrambled to add scooters to new markets, and the big three companies—Bird, LimeBike, and Spin—have more than $200 million in venture capital funding and aggressive expansion plans. These companies arrived unexpectedly in Nashville and Charlotte over the last few days.
But there’s another type of infrastructure that hasn’t been as closely examined, the workforce that charges and repairs these electric vehicles.
Curbed spoke with four Californians in Los Angeles and the San Francisco areas who work for Bird Scooters, which launched in Santa Monica and Venice last fall. These workers, all independent contractors, represent a new facet of the gig economy, and all enjoy the job and the ability to make money with a flexible side hustle.
Bird declined to comment and wouldn’t provide Curbed with any details about the number of employees who work in these roles, how much the company is spending on charging and repairs, or any other information about this aspect of their operations.
‘Do you like to make money while you sleep?’
Residents of Venice Beach have likely spotted Bird contractors working in their neighborhood. A pick-up will drive by, with a stack of Bird scooters packed in the truck bed. Or, a scooter rider may roll by with a rider balancing two or three additional out-of-commission scooters resting perpendicular on the scooter’s deck.
These are the chargers, independent contractors who keep the electric scooters running by charging them at their homes or apartments (a competitor, LimeBike, calls them “Juicers”). One of the advantages of dockless scooter systems like Bird is decentralization; the vehicles have no fixed docks, and go where riders are. The contract workers who charge Birds do the same.
Workers sign up online or via the Bird app (the website asks, “Do you like to make money while you sleep?”). After a phone interview to discuss the job, chargers are mailed a set of charger cords—three to start, according to chargers Curbed spoke with, and more as they prove reliable and develop a good track record. Harry Campbell, who runs a website about driving for Uber and Lyft, created a step-by-step guide to becoming a charger. The company caps the numbers of cords per charger at 20, and each requires a $10 deposit.
Once they’re set up, chargers use the app to hunt down scooters, finding Birds low on energy, and bringing them home to power them up.
Casey Dalton, 44, a part-time security guard who lives in Venice, has been charging for about four months out of a one-bedroom guest house he rents. On an average day, he can make about $110.
Dalton says there’s friendly competition between the chargers in his neighborhood, who often run into each other as they scout the streets for scooters. His description of finding and charging scooters almost sounds like a game.
“I’m hustling to get a scooter, and if there’s a guy already there, I usually recognize them” he says. “I’ve started doing sportsmanlike joshing. It’s good friendly competition, like playing pick-up basketball.”
Chargers work around a routine set up by their schedule and Bird’s desire to have all its scooters off the streets at night.
Every morning, scooters that have been charged overnight need to be released back onto the street into what’s called a nest, a predetermined corner or location on the map chargers can find via their app.
Charged scooters need to be in a nest between 4 and 7 a.m., in groups of three with handlebars tilted to the right and kickstands down. Chargers need to snap a photo of the scooters when they release them and send to Bird to verify they’re set up correctly. Scooters need to be picked up by 8 p.m., and then the cycle continues the next day.
Chargers can do multiple shifts during the day. On a recent Saturday afternoon in Venice, a charger, who had 15 or so Birds in his garage, was riding around the neighborhood, picking up depleted scooters.
According to the workers interviewed, chargers get paid $5 to $20 per charged scooter, depending on how much power has been used and how difficult it is to find (they’re color-coded, green being the easiest to find, then yellow and red).
The chargers Curbed spoke to said it’s a great part-time gig—most worked 5 to 6 hours at most every day—and a flexible way to earn extra money. They also said the repeated charging didn’t make a serious dent on their utility costs (the company says it costs 8 to 15 cents per Bird). One estimated that a particularly busy schedule would add between $5 and $10 a month to the electric bill.
How Bird scooters get fixed
Bird hasn’t released any statistics on the number of scooters they have on the streets in any of their active markets. Stray observations, and social media photos, suggest they get a decent amount of use, as well as wear and tear.
To fix its fleet, Bird also employs a number of mechanics to repair and restore busted and broken scooters, who also use the app to hunt down broken scooters. They’re paid $5 to $20 a scooter, depending on the extent of the repair.
According to Westell, mechanics are broken down into three categories, L1, L2, and L3. He’s an L1, and deals with basic repairs: he’ll fix flat tires, change inner tubes, loosen stuck throttles, and repair busted brake lines. Anything more serious gets passed on to different mechanics.
“There are times when people beat the shit out of the scooters because they aren’t their property,” he says. “Birds are new, but I’m sure the company will get a lot more strict once they see their product being destroyed, and having to pay for it.”
While some economists have claimed this system creates a “race to the bottom” and exploits contractors, every one of the Bird contractors said they loved the flexibility and the ability to earn extra money, and felt it was a good deal.
Rochelle Randle, 26, a new mom who lives in Burlingame, California, about 13 miles from San Francisco, discovered Bird when she and her partner were looking for a new way to earn some extra money. She’s been charging for a month since the company came to San Francisco, waking up around 5 a.m. to head to south San Francisco and release scooters, and then doing one or two charging shifts during the day.
She says she makes an average of about $500 a week working Monday through Friday, and still works just weeks after giving birth; her baby boy can tag along in a car seat when she’s out picking up and dropping off scooters.
“It’s a really convenient thing, and really helpful to me to have the extra stability,” she says. “It’s on your own schedule, and they don’t set expectations.”
The contractors also said the company was adapting and improving, adding more nests and continually updating the app. Dalton says he’s been called a few times by the company to talk about what he’s doing, and what does and doesn’t work.
“If anything could hurt this situation, it would be overreaching regulations by local government,” says Dalton. “I don’t fear it, I think they’ve been through most of this stuff with Uber.”