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Gig economy jobs aren't really taking over America's workforce

The "gig economy" of freelancers and short-term workers comprises a big chunk of America's labor force, but it may no...

Posted: Jun 8, 2018 7:18 AM
Updated: Jun 8, 2018 7:18 AM

The "gig economy" of freelancers and short-term workers comprises a big chunk of America's labor force, but it may not be growing as much as you think.

"Alternative" workers, which include independent contractors, people working for temporary and contract staffing agencies and on-call workers, accounted for 10.1% of the workforce in 2017, according to a survey released Thursday by the Department of Labor. That's actually down from 10.7% in 2005, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics last performed the survey.

People who did not expect their work to last very long - or "contingent" workers - amounted to 3.8% of the workforce, down from 4.1% in 2005 and 4.9% in 1995. (There is some overlap between the two categories: If you're working for a temporary staffing company but don't plan to stay very long, you fall into both camps, for example.)

That may sound surprising, considering the growth of companies like Uber and Thumbtack that make it easy to work on an ad hoc basis without being a traditional employee. One lesser-known company, the Gerson Lehrman Group, says it has 600,000 people working as freelance consultants - almost as many as Lyft's 700,000 U.S. drivers.

Related: The US economy needs seniors to work longer

But the BLS survey doesn't ask about side jobs you may pick up once in a while for extra money, which accounts for much of the work done on online platforms. Instead, it focuses on people for whom irregular work supplied their main source of income.

The more traditional contingent and alternative workforces, people who work for themselves or in short stints for different employers, haven't changed that much. For example, the research firm Staffing Industry Analysts finds that the share of the workforce supplied by staffing companies is only slightly above where it was back in 2000, at 2%.

Other studies put out by companies and academics have guessed that the gig economy is much larger. The freelance company Upwork estimated in 2017 that 57 million people did some independent work over the course of that year.

"The definition of this work is that it's flexible and the main driver of why people work this way is freedom," says Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel. "I think it's critical we take as broad a look at the freelance economy as possible, so our country can more effectively make policy decisions that fit the current reality of our workforce."

But not everybody likes working gigs. Although the BLS survey found that 79% of independent contractors preferred their arrangement over a traditional job, 55% of short-term workers would rather have a permanent job.

That may be part of the reason why the numbers came in so low. With so many regular jobs available these days, there's no need to take something without a consistent income stream.

"It's rational to expect that you're not going to see a lot of people working on a contingent basis for their primary form of income in an economy with 3.9% unemployment," says Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

Also, the BLS survey may not capture everybody who's a contingent or alternative worker because sometimes workers themselves don't recognize it. For example, 57% of the workers who derive almost all their income from online platforms consider themselves employees rather than independent contractors, according to a poll conducted for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Related: California ruling puts pressure on Uber, Lyft and other gig economy employers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics did ask four questions specifically about online "gig economy" platforms, and will release the results later in the fall.

The results of these surveys are contested because they have a bearing on a hot policy debate: Whether labor laws should change to help online platforms and other providers of temporary labor provide some benefits to workers without turning them into employees.

Although more contingent workers had health insurance coverage last year - 73%, up from 59% in 2005 - there's still a gap in benefits between those irregular workers and regular employees. Alternative workers are also disproportionately non-white, and the share of temp agency workers identifying as non-white rose 10% between 2005 and 2017.

In the absence of federal action, online platforms have pressed states to allow them to offer benefits without making their workers into employees, which worker advocates have typically opposed.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 515504

Reported Deaths: 10296
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34999558
DeSoto33360432
Hinds32743643
Jackson24906392
Rankin22565405
Lee16455245
Madison14954283
Jones14158248
Forrest13834260
Lauderdale12311323
Lowndes11357193
Lamar10693140
Pearl River9748244
Lafayette8868143
Hancock7849132
Washington7559169
Oktibbeha7229138
Monroe7068179
Pontotoc7033110
Warren6885178
Panola6791135
Neshoba6744210
Marshall6707142
Bolivar6468151
Union643598
Pike5942157
Alcorn5921107
Lincoln5540136
George510680
Prentiss508285
Tippah495683
Itawamba4884107
Scott478999
Tate4777117
Adams4776125
Leflore4749144
Copiah458195
Yazoo458092
Simpson4566117
Wayne443472
Covington434895
Sunflower4319106
Marion4295112
Coahoma4244110
Leake414191
Newton396182
Tishomingo386894
Grenada3789109
Stone366166
Jasper341266
Attala340490
Chickasaw318367
Winston318392
Clay312978
Clarke301695
Calhoun286850
Holmes272889
Smith270552
Yalobusha244947
Tallahatchie232353
Greene225149
Walthall222166
Lawrence220242
Perry214556
Amite210357
Webster206548
Noxubee188843
Montgomery182157
Carroll175441
Jefferson Davis174343
Tunica163539
Benton153139
Kemper145441
Choctaw137027
Claiborne134839
Humphreys132239
Franklin126530
Quitman107828
Wilkinson106139
Jefferson97134
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 847659

Reported Deaths: 16172
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1163752005
Mobile743371381
Madison53434738
Shelby38413371
Baldwin38171589
Tuscaloosa36131643
Montgomery34571782
Lee25664264
Calhoun22622519
Morgan22527408
Etowah20059520
Marshall18821318
Houston17769426
St. Clair16946359
Limestone16192220
Cullman16140305
Elmore15948295
Lauderdale15055307
Talladega14244302
DeKalb13061271
Walker12138380
Blount10765193
Autauga10545157
Jackson10204195
Coffee9435192
Colbert9363210
Dale9038192
Tallapoosa7283202
Russell710165
Chilton7078170
Covington6967197
Escambia6962144
Franklin6364108
Chambers5795142
Marion5435130
Dallas5302210
Pike5128109
Clarke485686
Lawrence4845130
Winston4785110
Geneva4650136
Bibb435495
Barbour370180
Butler3444101
Marengo342793
Monroe338366
Randolph337767
Pickens334790
Fayette331485
Henry321066
Cherokee319964
Hale318889
Crenshaw261678
Washington256852
Cleburne255460
Lamar253555
Clay252069
Macon245767
Conecuh193562
Coosa185847
Wilcox178338
Lowndes178268
Bullock152745
Perry141840
Sumter139741
Greene130345
Choctaw94328
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