STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

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: 313166

Reported Deaths: 7228
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21496257
Hinds20294414
Harrison17814309
Rankin13573278
Jackson13411246
Madison10066217
Lee9962173
Jones8364163
Forrest7649152
Lauderdale7181240
Lowndes6370145
Lamar621686
Lafayette6171118
Washington5323133
Bolivar4797132
Oktibbeha461498
Panola4561105
Pearl River4499145
Marshall4397103
Warren4380121
Pontotoc419572
Monroe4100133
Union409076
Neshoba4026176
Lincoln3950110
Hancock377786
Leflore3487125
Sunflower335790
Tate332484
Pike3301105
Scott315373
Alcorn311968
Yazoo310769
Itawamba299477
Copiah296465
Simpson294788
Coahoma294379
Tippah287768
Prentiss279560
Adams269582
Marion268880
Leake266273
Wayne262341
Grenada260386
Covington256381
George246848
Newton246061
Winston226881
Tishomingo225967
Jasper220848
Attala214173
Chickasaw207157
Holmes188673
Clay184754
Stone182033
Tallahatchie178140
Clarke177879
Calhoun170132
Yalobusha163337
Smith162234
Walthall133845
Greene130333
Lawrence128323
Montgomery126742
Noxubee126734
Perry125938
Amite122842
Carroll121728
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis106932
Tunica104826
Claiborne102230
Benton99125
Humphreys96133
Kemper95428
Franklin83623
Quitman80216
Choctaw76118
Wilkinson66930
Jefferson65428
Sharkey50317
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 530325

Reported Deaths: 10966
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson763971520
Mobile40908804
Madison34717503
Tuscaloosa25730452
Montgomery24314588
Shelby23401249
Baldwin21107307
Lee15856171
Calhoun14488314
Morgan14282279
Etowah13819353
Marshall12210223
Houston10557280
Elmore10044205
Limestone9954150
Cullman9649193
St. Clair9644242
Lauderdale9419241
DeKalb8825185
Talladega8214175
Walker7223277
Autauga6918108
Jackson6804112
Blount6651137
Colbert6292134
Coffee5506119
Dale4828111
Russell440638
Chilton4279112
Franklin425582
Covington4118118
Tallapoosa4019152
Escambia393276
Chambers3559123
Dallas3547151
Clarke350861
Marion3113100
Pike310577
Lawrence299898
Winston274072
Bibb260464
Marengo249264
Geneva249077
Pickens234160
Barbour230757
Hale222677
Butler215969
Fayette212062
Henry188744
Cherokee184445
Randolph179941
Monroe177340
Washington167039
Macon158750
Clay156156
Crenshaw152057
Cleburne148741
Lamar141934
Lowndes138653
Wilcox127030
Bullock123041
Conecuh110129
Perry107526
Coosa107128
Sumter104332
Greene92334
Choctaw60424
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 71°
Columbus
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 70°
Oxford
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 68°
Starkville
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 64°
This will bring back into our area some more chances for some rain and thunderstorms.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather