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 8:18 AM
Updated: Jun 8, 2018 8:18 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.

West Lafayette
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 71°
Kokomo
Clear
69° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 69°
Rensselaer
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 70°
Fowler
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 70°
Williamsport
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 72°
Crawfordsville
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 73°
Frankfort
Broken Clouds
75° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 75°
Delphi
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 72°
Monticello
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 72°
Logansport
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 72°
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 52037

Reported Deaths: 2762
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion12111693
Lake5677249
Elkhart366260
Allen2971134
St. Joseph221169
Hamilton1735101
Cass16489
Hendricks1470100
Johnson1351118
Porter84938
Vanderburgh8016
Tippecanoe7859
Clark71944
Madison68164
LaPorte62928
Howard61058
Bartholomew60545
Kosciusko5844
Marshall57011
Noble52428
Boone49244
LaGrange48710
Delaware48152
Jackson4793
Hancock47436
Shelby46025
Floyd41844
Monroe36128
Morgan34431
Grant32226
Dubois3196
Henry30318
Montgomery29720
Clinton2903
White27810
Dearborn27123
Warrick26829
Vigo2618
Decatur25732
Lawrence25325
Harrison21822
Greene19932
Miami1942
Jennings17912
Putnam1748
DeKalb1694
Scott1659
Wayne1596
Daviess15117
Perry15110
Steuben1402
Orange13823
Jasper1362
Ripley1357
Franklin1288
Gibson1282
Wabash1193
Carroll1142
Starke1093
Fayette1087
Whitley1086
Newton10110
Huntington942
Jefferson872
Wells831
Randolph804
Fulton761
Jay720
Knox710
Washington681
Pulaski661
Clay645
Posey640
Rush623
Spencer591
Owen531
Benton510
Sullivan511
Adams491
Brown441
Blackford402
Fountain362
Crawford330
Tipton331
Switzerland320
Parke280
Martin260
Ohio230
Vermillion200
Warren151
Union140
Pike120
Unassigned0193

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events