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Business & Economics

Gig Workers Hustle To Earn Big Bucks – Or Break Even – At Sturgis Rally

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SDPB/Arielle Zionts
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Independent vendors, tattoo artists and bar dancers are staples of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. And the massive 10-day event wouldn’t function without restaurant and hospitality workers.  

Many of these positions are filled by temporary gig-workers ranging from local retirees looking to earn extra money to bartenders who travel the country on the biker rally circuit.  

Irona Cliver, a Marines veteran, stands in front of her booth at Sturgis

Irona Cliver usually sells her motorcycle apparel and patches from her retail shop in Kansas. But once a year she makes the trek to Sturgis. The vendor permit, travel and other costs are expensive but worth it.  

“My investment typically runs about, with lodging, about $15,000 before we ever leave home,” Cliver said. “I make enough to come back every year and pay all my help and go ahead and pay for next year’s rally.”  

Cliver, a Marines veteran, hires a crew of workers. This year it’s her mother, a friend who lost her job, a nurse who took time off work and a salon owner who temporarily closed her business to work the rally.  

Keeping the shop open up to 16 hours a day isn’t easy.  

“We’re on concrete all day so we’re on anti-fatigue mats. A lot of us have our arches taped with two rounds of coflex band because that helps keep your arches intact and your feet not swelling as bad from working on concrete all day or standing in one place,” Cliver said.  

From left: Charles, Carlos and Chuck Perez sell their handmade leather products at the Sturgis Rally.

Down the street, Chuck Perez walks by his racks of handmade leather bags, vests and hotpants. The 76-year-old is on his 30th rally.  

Perez has a showroom in Cleveland and travels to rallies across the country. Sturgis is his most profitable stop. But Perez and his crew – which includes his son and grandson – are not living in luxury. They sleep on cots inside their large booth.  

“We’ve got showers up the street, that’s all we need,” Perez said. “Sometimes you’ve got to watch your stuff you know because a few times people are trying to come in. Because all we do is cover it with a tent.” 

Tattoo artist Lina Skipper says it’s not uncommon for customers to ask her to coverup a tattoo they received at a previous Sturgis Rally.

Mixed in with downtown vendors are the permanent and pop-up tattoo shops. Tattoo artist Lina Skipper takes a smoke break, her right arm and leg covered in ink.  

The Colorado woman said many tattoo artists use social media to find a place to set up. Some locations provide equipment while others make the artists bring their own gear. And store owners can make money by charging for booth space or collecting a percentage of the artists’ earnings.  

Skipper earns between $3,000 and $5,000 during the rally, and it comes at a perfect time of the year. 

“Tattooing is kind of a feast or famine industry. It tends to be a lot busier during the summertime whereas wintertime we start to experience a lull,” she said. “So when I come to Sturgis every year it’s kind of my nest egg, that extra money I make brings me through the winter.”  

Sturgis brings in hundreds of thousands of people. So many campgrounds across the Black Hills need to hire extra workers.  

Vicki Schuster is a 51-year-old from Aurora, South Dakota. She had a tough 2020: She lost her job due to the pandemic, broke up with her boyfriend and had to deal with car and unemployment problems. 

“I decided when things were getting back to normal that I would go do something crazy that I’d never done before and hopefully maybe try to earn some quick cash to supplement some of the income that I had lost last year,” Schuster said. “So I just wanted to have a good time and just let everybody know that I was on my way back.” 

Schuster used Google to search for a rally gig and took an unpaid vacation from a new job. She’s waiting tables at the Glencoe Campground and it’s tough. Schuster has blisters and swollen feet from standing up to 12 hours a day.  

Vicki Schuster chats with a customer at the Glencoe Campground

The job pays $3 an hour. With tips, she brings in between $80 and $200 a night.  

Schuster is sleeping in her car to save money and hopes to leave with more than she would have made at her full-time job. If not, she’s still walking away with new friends, experiences and even some job referrals. 

“I’m just kind of rolling with it,” Schuster said. “I’m seeing things I’ll never be able to unsee. It’s going to be kind of tight, but I wouldn’t trade the experience that I’ve gained here for anything in the world.” 

Schuster and many other gig workers will leave once the rally ends on Sunday.