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: 253932

Reported Deaths: 5524
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17120175
Hinds16207322
Harrison13353193
Rankin10689211
Jackson10303183
Lee8796141
Madison8232162
Jones6288110
Forrest5949119
Lauderdale5847180
Lowndes5355116
Lafayette494292
Lamar484165
Washington4777123
Bolivar3966108
Oktibbeha392480
Panola368378
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Monroe3533105
Warren348498
Union343060
Marshall341665
Neshoba3370152
Pearl River327899
Leflore3002105
Lincoln297085
Sunflower282669
Tate270862
Hancock266559
Alcorn263253
Itawamba262459
Pike262077
Scott246245
Prentiss245052
Yazoo244355
Copiah240849
Tippah240450
Simpson234867
Leake230564
Coahoma230054
Grenada217770
Covington211371
Marion210672
Adams204670
Winston200164
Wayne199630
George199038
Attala193559
Newton191342
Tishomingo184459
Chickasaw183644
Jasper169735
Holmes168567
Clay159033
Stone142320
Tallahatchie140134
Clarke138660
Calhoun135721
Smith120123
Yalobusha116534
Walthall111836
Noxubee110322
Greene109729
Montgomery109434
Carroll104221
Lawrence102417
Perry101631
Amite97725
Webster92224
Tunica86321
Claiborne86125
Jefferson Davis84125
Humphreys82924
Benton81523
Kemper77120
Quitman6888
Franklin66415
Choctaw60313
Wilkinson58325
Jefferson53819
Sharkey42717
Issaquena1596
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 422598

Reported Deaths: 6120
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson62039921
Mobile30225548
Madison27052186
Tuscaloosa20728267
Montgomery18978305
Shelby18504114
Baldwin16251182
Lee12465101
Morgan12233113
Etowah11735168
Calhoun11122200
Marshall10191107
Houston8598148
Cullman8023105
Limestone800274
Elmore7836101
DeKalb768397
Lauderdale754683
St. Clair7535120
Talladega6166108
Walker5897174
Jackson580341
Colbert532073
Blount530483
Autauga518455
Coffee441056
Dale396181
Franklin366248
Chilton336165
Russell330310
Covington327268
Escambia316842
Dallas303196
Chambers282769
Clarke281433
Tallapoosa2616107
Pike248729
Marion245650
Lawrence243647
Winston226635
Bibb215147
Geneva201435
Marengo199029
Pickens196531
Hale175842
Barbour172936
Butler169658
Fayette168226
Cherokee160330
Henry153621
Monroe145217
Randolph139835
Washington137626
Clay126145
Crenshaw118744
Lamar118019
Cleburne117423
Macon114735
Lowndes110335
Wilcox103121
Bullock99028
Perry97419
Conecuh94420
Sumter89026
Greene76023
Coosa60515
Choctaw51224
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