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What's missing in the conversation about the pandemic gig economy

A DoorDash Inc. delivery bag sits on the

A DoorDash Inc. delivery bag sits on the floor at Chef Geoff's restaurant in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2020. Credit: Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer

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In November 2020, the leading food-delivery service, DoorDash, reported 543 million total orders for the first nine months of the year. As reported in MarketWatch, this represented a threefold increase over the orders placed in the same period in 2019.

The numbers are striking. Even more striking are the human stories behind them. Who are the people who cooked and delivered these millions of meals? Buried within the story of COVID-19's impact on the economy — the many industries that have collapsed and the few that have thrived — is the prominence of seasonal labor.

We generally think of seasonal workers as those picking crops on farms and packing food in industrial plants. But if we consider the many possible meanings of "season" — from natural cycle, to stage of life, to accumulated experience, to added flavor — we realize that impermanent seasonal work is all around: delivery drivers, grocery store stockers and Instacart shoppers.

Impermanent labor — done for extraordinary reasons (a war, an environmental catastrophe, a government-sponsored public works project) or as part of a predictable cycle (harvest seasons or animal migrations) — has long been a part of the human experience. It has existed not just in fields but in factories. It has been performed not just by men, but by women and children. It is easy to grasp the economic impact of the pandemic with numbers that chart COVID-19's astonishing effect on various industries. But a focus solely on large-scale shifts ignores the diversity of experience and small-scale calculations that shaped the past year. And history reminds us that individual choices about work are deeply intertwined with the large-scale economic forces — shaping one another in consequential ways.

Temporary labor in the past coincided with seasons of commerce and warfare as well as with fluctuations in the natural world. Hurricanes in the Atlantic and monsoons in the Indian Ocean, for example, constrained ships that traveled regularly between global markets in the 16th and 17th centuries.

These seasonal rhythms shaped all the trade and labor these voyages encompassed: Each ship brought with it cargo that needed unloading, as well as sailors in search of all kinds of goods and services after grueling weeks and months at sea. Women, men and children would come in from the countryside in response to this demand — baking bread, selling sex, mending shoes, playing music, picking pockets. Some stayed in the in-between months; others moved on in search of new sources of income and amusement. Taken as a whole, their actions made possible the rise of maritime empires, the growth of cities and the impoverishment of rural areas increasingly deprived of their population.

Other patterns of seasonal labor shaped landlocked regions. Military conflicts drew would-be soldiers and sailors from poor and peaceful regions to warring ones in search of a paycheck, as was the case with the Central and Northern Europeans drawn into the growing navies of Western European powers. In coastal regions prone to summertime attacks, such as the southern littoral of Spain and Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries, men signed up for seasonal work as watchtower lookouts, their eyes on the horizon in search of hostile ships.

Alongside the cycles of political rivalries and state-sponsored violence, patterns of the natural world prompted small-scale, work-driven migrations. Each spring, laborers of all sorts flooded southwestern Spanish towns in anticipation of the flurry of work generated by the seasonal migration of tuna from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. This ancient practice continues to this day. Although Spanish tuna now serves Japanese markets, the modern global logistics that make this possible exist alongside centuries of family traditions rooted deeply in southern Iberian lifeways.

Similarly, in Northern Europe, pearl-fishing Scotsmen decamped to Sweden to ply rivers during summer months. Their movements across borders and back again shaped and reflected ambitious European monarchies' sense of how to harness the human and natural resources of their realms.

In other words, in the past, as in the present, people signed on for temporary labor projects because word traveled in local communities that there was money to be made or because an enterprise had become a family vocation. Sometimes, people worked seasonally because the fruit needed to be picked or the ships manned or the flocks moved. Other times, it was a catastrophic event or governmental ineptitude that presented new hardships and forced people to engage with the labor market in new ways.

In the moment of making these decisions, individuals were not necessarily aware of, say, how their options reflected and shaped the rise of merchant capitalism in the late medieval and early modern period or the expansion of the nation-state in the 17th and 18th centuries — but that was the case. Peoples' private actions, undertaken for any number of reasons, shaped large-scale phenomena, and vice versa.

Temporary seasonal work is not new, though it is more visible thanks to this difficult year of pandemic living — and it will play a significant role in the long-term impact of COVID-19 on our society. And indeed, popular culture is also tackling the phenomenon. The new movie "Nomadland" tells the story of a seasonal Amazon worker navigating the Great Recession.

In the past as in the present, we find related tales of seasonal labor, of personal calculations made in the context of a sudden crisis and within the constraints of prevailing economic systems. The terms under which people perform seasonal labor have always varied immensely and in critical ways: They have encompassed enslaved workers sent to build and repair maritime fortifications; prison inmates ordered to clear fields or repair highways; soldiers and sailors; cooks and female factory workers. This type of work could, and can, characterize a lifetime or just a season of someone's life: a summer, a winter, a jail term, a pandemic. A knowledge of this history offers a new perspective on the nearly unfathomable numbers that the pandemic has produced — from the staggering death toll to the economic ramifications for companies and the global economy at large.

We can't afford to think about the making of the modern world without considering these seasonal patterns of labor and migration and how they have interacted with shifting laws, political systems and market regulations. We can't make sense of the impact of COVID-19 without considering how the farmhands, warehouse workers, delivery drivers and personal shoppers will tell the stories of this period of their lives — the money they made, the people they met, the risks they took. As Americans increasingly get vaccinated and hope abounds about resuming normal life, it can't obscure the varieties of seasonal labor that have sustained us — often at great cost to those doing the work — throughout this crisis.

Molly A. Warsh is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches early modern and world history. She is the author of "American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire," 1492-1700 (Omohundro Institute/University of North Carolina Press, 2018) and is currently writing a book on seasonal and itinerant labor. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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