More Details Needed on Gig Workers, Senate Appropriators Say (1)

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By Tyrone Richardson

Senate appropriators are urging the Bureau of Labor Statistics to change how it collects data so it has a clearer picture of the gig economy and advances in technology.

The Senate appropriations committee recently approved funding legislation (S. 3158) for the Labor and Health and Human Services departments, teeing up the bill for full Senate consideration in the coming weeks.

The proposal suggests a slight increase in funding for the Labor Department’s BLS and offers suggestions for how the agency should continue gathering data on the gig economy, according to the committee report. It also says the BLS should explore how technology like artificial intelligence is affecting the workforce.

“The Senate Appropriations Committee is interested in making sure that BLS data, which measures a variety of critical labor market economic conditions, is timely and accurate,” a committee spokesperson told Bloomberg Law in an email. “There is an interest in having BLS data reflect the changing labor market, including digitization and automation, which has not been greatly reflected by the Bureau up to this point.”

Automation and artificial intelligence are growing concerns as such technology will likely change the workplace and potentially lead to displacement of workers. The gig economy is also of concern for some federal and local lawmakers as they draft legislation to protect the gig workforce. Those workers often lack traditional protections like guaranteed minimum wages and benefits.

The Senate appropriation committee’s suggestion for the BLS comes as the Trump administration is proposing a government reorganization that includes moving the bureau from the DOL to the Commerce Department. The BLS is tasked with compiling labor and economic data such as the monthly employment report.

Biennial Survey Urged

The Senate appropriations committee directs the BLS to conduct its survey on the nation’s contingent workforce on a biennial basis.

The bureau June 7 released its first in-depth snapshot of the gig workforce since 2005, a report that had been delayed because of BLS budget shortfalls. The June 7 study concluded that the number of gig and other contingent full-time jobs shrunk to 10.1 percent of the nation’s workforce, down from 10.7 percent in 2005.

The BLS results run counter to some industry reports that concluded the gig economy accounts for as much as a third of the nation’s workforce. Some advocates have suggested that the differences could be due to the BLS report not including workers who use part-time gigs to supplement income of more traditional jobs.

The BLS, as early as this summer, will release findings from four survey questions that weren’t in the June 7 study. The data will identify the number of people who found work by sharing rides, cleaning houses, and delivering food through apps or websites.

DOL officials declined to comment when reached by Bloomberg Law July 3.

Federal Lawmakers Eager for More Data

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) are asking for more BLS data to help them sculpt legislation. Warner June 13 sent a letter to the BLS urging it to provide more details about the gig workforce and to do so on a regular basis.

An official with Young’s office told Bloomberg Law that the committee action is “a good step in the right direction.”

Similarly, Warner told Bloomberg Law that he “commends” the committee’s action.

“While, ideally, this data would be collected on an annual basis, I have been calling for these changes moving forward as important first steps to better understand this valuable, sizable, and consistent segment of the economy,” Warner said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues and the BLS to request improved data collection and more accurate questions to understand how Americans are engaging with a 21st century economy.”

Warner has already introduced legislation addressing the gig workforce. One bill (S. 3097) would evaluate how the workers are taxed and another (S. 1251) would encourage testing of health care and other portable benefits that would travel with a worker from job to job. This comes as states such as New York, New Jersey, and Washington are considering legislation intended to provide gig workers with portable benefits.

The committee’s direction for continual BLS data collection also drew praise from a Future of Work initiative by the Aspen Institute, workforce advocate.

“Policymakers shouldn’t have to wait fifteen years in order to understand how contingent work is changing,” Executive Director Alastair Fitzpayne said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg Law. “The report language included in the Senate bill is a step in the right direction and will hopefully lead the Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct more regular data collection on this critical segment of the workforce.”

More Data on Automation, AI

The committee report also calls for some improvements in data collection, including an extra $3 million to “support the improvement of the quality and accuracy of labor force statistics.” That proposal would increase BLS discretionary spending to $615 million for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

The report lauds some BLS data collection and urges changes for others, including an assessment of the effect technology is having on the nation’s workforce.

“The Committee is concerned that there continues to be insufficient data on the impact technology is having on the American workforce,” according to the report. “The Committee encourages BLS to develop a strategy to better understand how automation, digitization, and artificial intelligence are changing the employment landscape.”

The report directs the BLS to submit a report detailing steps taken to develop the data strategy “no later than 90 days after enactment of this act.”

Meantime, the private sector is also addressing the technology issue. Prime Policy Group, a Washington lobbying organization, and law firm Littler Mendelson created a coalition aiming to shape policy as a response to technology displacing workers.

As many as 375 million workers worldwide may need to change careers in the next 12 years as a result of automation, according to the think tank McKinsey Global Institute.

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