Every year, when the first hints of spring begin to surface in the Northeastern United States, RevZilla's sales pick up.

It's the start of one of the online motorcycle-gear retailer's peak seasons, but with those spikes comes a challenge: How should it handle staffing up the company's three warehouses? It's a question, as RevZilla human resources director Talia Edmundson put it, of how to hire responsibly.

If the company hired too many, it would have to lay people off.

If it didn't hire enough, it would risk burning out its full-time warehouse staff with too many overtime hours.

In recent years, the company, which has warehouses in the Navy Yard as well as Las Vegas and Louisville, Ky., was able to accurately plan its hiring of seasonal employees, workers with a firm start and end date. But there were some developments at the 11-year-old company that called for a new strategy. In Las Vegas, it was expanding into a 140,000-square-foot warehouse, more than three times the size of the former one. RevZilla was also going to start fulfilling orders for its sister company, Cycle Gear, a brick-and-mortar with 140 locations.

Its solution: flex workers.

Inside RevZilla’s fulfillment center in the Navy Yard.
Roy Kim / RevZilla
Inside RevZilla’s fulfillment center in the Navy Yard.

It'd be an Uber-like model, where part-time workers use an app to sign up for open shifts. RevZilla would target students and parents, people who couldn't or didn't want to work 40 hours a week, and those who didn't want to stick to a regular schedule. They'd sign up a week ahead of time for shifts (which could be as short as three hours) but keep an eye on the app in case more shifts opened due to cancellations or sudden increased demand. They'd be trained and assessed like full-time employees — and paid the same starting hourly rate — and they'd also work often enough to get a feel for the culture and their coworkers. (RevZilla declined to disclose its hourly rate, but chief logistics officer Marc Barrer said it was nearly double minimum wage, which is $7.25 in Pennsylvania.) If at some point they wanted to transition to full-time work, they could.

The first flex worker started in March, and the program has since grown to roughly 75 employees between Philadelphia and Las Vegas — flex work hasn't fully launched in Louisville. So far, 10 have transitioned to full time.

Flex work as a warehouse labor trend

The program is an example of how nontraditional gig work has made its way into every corner of the working world. Yes, there's Uber, there's Grubhub, there are nannies finding clients on Care.com. But there are also companies employing gig-like strategies to tackle their labor needs.

Businesses contract with temp agencies or outsource specific tasks to, say, a firm that supplies them with concierges and housekeepers.

Or, like RevZilla, they create a new class of employees that allows them to more easily respond to the ebb and flow of the business. It also aligns with what some workers want in terms of flexibility and the ability to set their own schedules. (That is, more or less: Flex workers sign up according to shifts offered by RevZilla at specific times.) Edmundson says RevZilla's seen a lot of interest in the flex worker positions.

These new models of employment have caused concern about workers' rights. But many of those concerns stem from the gig economy model, where workers are classified (or misclassified) as independent contractors. RevZilla's flex workers are classified as employees.

Since launching in March, RevZilla’s flex worker program has grown to 75 workers between Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
Roy Kim / RevZilla
Since launching in March, RevZilla’s flex worker program has grown to 75 workers between Las Vegas and Philadelphia.

Jeremy Davidson, a Nashville-based director with supply chain services company Fortna, says flex work is a trend he's seen with companies that run distribution centers, including third-party logistics firms that operate millions of square feet of warehouses for retail, manufacturing, and wholesale companies. (Barrer actually came from a third-party logistics company that used this strategy, which is why RevZilla began considering it.)

It's geared toward workers who "value culture and value pay but can't commit for a whole week," Davidson says.

Flex work is also a way for companies to set themselves apart from the competition, Davidson says, as finding and retaining employees for fulfillment centers has become a major challenge.

"It's not uncommon for employers to hire 100 people for seasonal work and only 50 show up," Davidson says, "and that's a good number."

RevZilla interviews all of its prospective flex workers in person, usually through an open house pizza party at its fulfillment centers, so that managers aren't constantly having to leave their day-to-day work to conduct interviews. If they're hiring for 40, they usually need to interview 60 to 80 candidates, who have already been prescreened through their applicant tracking system, Edmundson says.

The average flex worker signs up for 20 hours a week and is more of a long-term employee, rather than only picking up one or two shifts and then leaving the company, Barrer said. He hopes these employees will stay on for three to four years. They're eligible for a 401(k) program after six months, the only benefit they get. So far, RevZilla has been able to offer enough hours to satisfy its flex worker pool, but the program hasn't existed during slow months yet.