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By Chris Opfer
Oct. 6 — The debate over the size of the gig economy and its impact on employment continued Oct. 6, as a new estimate showed that more than one-third of American workers make at least some of their money in contingent jobs.
A total of 55 million workers were employed at least part-time in gig, on-demand and other nontraditional jobs, the Freelancers Union and temporary job platform Upwork said. More than half (53 percent) of those workers did freelance work in addition to holding down more traditional jobs.
“This shows that workers are doing freelance and on-demand jobs throughout the country, not just in the major cities,” Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union executive director, told Bloomberg BNA. “It means that they need real policy solutions to get them the benefits and protections that they deserve.”
The rise of on-demand employers, like car share operators Uber and Lyft, personal grocery shoppers Instacart, and home cleaning and repair service TaskRabbit, have raised questions about how gig workers should be classified for tax and employment purposes. Some worker advocates worry, however, that policy makers are giving too much attention to a slice of the independent workforce and overlooking issues raised by other staffing and independent contract arrangements.
“This has very little to do with the nature or future of work,” Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA of the report’s findings. He noted that the share of workers who designate themselves as self-employed in a monthly Labor Department survey has remained about the same over the last two decades.
Most gig workers are classified as independent contractors, like those who work in other staffing and contract relationships. Those workers usually don’t get benefits. They generally aren’t entitled to minimum wage and overtime protections, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and aren’t subject to tax withholdings.
The total number of people who spend at least some of their time working at contingent jobs jumped by 2 million over the last two years to 55 million, according to the report. That’s about a 4 percent increase, compared with the nearly 3 percent increase in the workforce nationwide tracked by the DOL.
The Freelancers Union and Upwork study was based on responses by more than 6,000 workers. They counted within the contingent worker group anyone who said they’d done at least one “supplemental, temporary, project- or contract-based” job within the last 12 months.
The results come as the DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics is prepping to update its own survey of contingent workers. The BLS defines contingent workers as those in “jobs that are structured to last only a limited period of time.”
Existing DOL data don’t capture the “full breadth” of people doing freelance jobs, including those supplementing income from more traditional sources, Horowitz said. “What we’re seeing is that even people that have traditional jobs are starting to take up moonlighting gigs,” she said.
The trouble, according to Horowitz and others, is that freelancers often find themselves in episodic arrangements in which work—and pay—comes in waves. Several worker advocates and policy observers have said lawmakers need to reconsider the existing social contract to ensure that these workers get some of the benefits and protections they need.
Policy solutions include creating a new classification for gig workers that would fall somewhere between an independent contract and a traditional employee. Some employers, policy makers and worker advocates have also pushed for a portable benefits system that would allow multiple employers to kick into the same plan for workers with more than one job.
EPI’s Mishel said the new report appears to capture a wide range of workers, including small business operators and students who may pick up a little extra cash through babysitting gigs and similar jobs. He said he supports the Freelancers Union’s efforts to assist its members but wants lawmakers to focus on contingent workers who are relying on independent contractor arrangements for the bulk or all of their income.
“The problems are real enough without having to aggrandize that everyone in the future is going to be a freelancer,” Mishel said.
The EPI, which receives about a quarter of its funding from labor unions, is a think tank that says it is committed to including low- and middle-income workers’ needs in policy discussions.
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