Need a Freelance Worker Today? There’s an App for That

New digital platforms let employers fill work shifts on demand

By teve Bates Nov 6, 2015
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Emerging smartphone applications are helping employers find freelance workers on demand. Like Uber, which people use to locate drivers for rides, these new apps help companies secure freelancers for occasional work shifts—as soon as the same day.

The freelance workforce has grown significantly in recent years, as people who want flexibility in their work and lives have increasingly shunned full-time employment with a single organization. Staffing agencies can provide employers with temporary workers, typically for weeks or months at a single business, and usually with several days of lead time. However, there has been a recent burst of startups that use technology to fill unexpected or episodic work shifts.

For example, in October 2015, the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs met for four baseball playoff games—two in each city. Because the teams did not qualify for the National League Championship Series until a few days before the games would be played, no one knew for sure if and when the stadiums would need cashiers, servers, bartenders and ticket-takers. Mobile platform Shiftgig, based in Chicago, provided more than 100 of these workers at each of the games on short notice, said Shiftgig CEO Eddie Lou. “A smartphone allows real work to happen in real time,” he said.

Here’s how it works: Employers use the Shiftgig platform to post the shifts they need to fill, designating the time and place. Prequalified workers find the shifts that fit their needs, click to accept and then show up to work. Many of the platforms recruit, screen and train the workers they provide.

Warehouse helpers, cooks, bartenders and hotel workers are finding plenty of shifts through these digital platforms. But not all of the labor is entry level. Boston-based HourlyNerd provides top business school graduates as expert consultants for short-term projects at major corporations.

Legal Liability

There are potential drawbacks: There’s no guarantee that any worker will show up or will perform the work adequately. And there’s the question of whether the people filling these work shifts are considered independent contractors or employees under state and federal laws; employees are protected by laws regarding wages and benefits. This issue has dogged the freelance labor market, resulting in lawsuits against firms such as Uber and a federal crackdown on employers misclassifying employees as contractors. Legal experts say an employer faces liability if its app-based labor provider misclassifies a worker as an independent contractor.

Michael T. Landen, a partner in the law firm Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine in Miami, advises organizations connecting with workers through any third-party agency to obtain a written agreement that establishes that the organization using the labor is not the employer of the worker. He also suggests that the agency indemnify the employer against any lawsuit brought by the worker. With the growth of online labor providers, “The landscape has changed,” he observed.

Various digital work platforms handle the classification issue differently. Some maintain that the workers they supply for spot shifts are independent contractors. Some have decided to treat the workers as their own employees, providing them salary and benefits, including health coverage. Other labor providers say they offer a mix of their employees and independent contractors to clients.

Are Apps the David to Staffing Firms’ Goliath?

The growth of app-based labor providers could shake up the traditional staffing industry. The competition could very well be a concern for staffing firms, but some labor experts say that app-based labor providers are filling somewhat different needs. Many of the people in the digitally-enabled workforce are supplementing full-time jobs; others are participating because of the flexibility that the apps offer. For example, a parent who needs to drop off children at school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon can now find midday work shifts more readily than in the past.

In 2013, Troy, Mich.-based staffing firm Kelly Services announced an alliance with an online staffing platform. Labor experts forecast more such partnerships and acquisitions, and they predict that staffing agencies will develop their own apps. “Some of them are running pilot projects,” said Andrew Karpie, a technology research analyst, consultant and writer with advisory firm Azul Partners, based in Chicago.

It’s too early to tell whether the use of apps to fill work shifts will become a mainstream business tool. “It’s hard to know exactly how it will evolve,” said Susan N. Houseman, senior economist with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, based in Kalamazoo, Mich. “People want secure, stable work. Unless the model can grow and provide that, it’s going to be limited.”

One of the goals of fledgling platform Workgeni.us is to provide as much work as its people want. Piecing together occasional work shifts at different employers “can be a real job,” said Workgeni.us CEO and co-founder Ben Bear. However, he said that the app-based labor industry is still developing and employers will want to study it carefully. “No one has really figured it out,” said Bear, whose firm will focus initially on delivery services in the San Francisco area. “It’s the Wild West right now.”

But Rob Biederman, co-CEO of HourlyNerd, believes that hiring apps are here to stay. “I expect that we will see online labor markets take over much of the way that employers find people,” he stated. He pointed to the evolution of stock trading to online platforms managed by individual investors as a model for how hiring could become dominated by web- and app-based platforms.

“There are about 300 of these [hiring] platforms around the world” now compared with, at most, 20 a decade ago, said Karpie. “The growing shift to mobile seems to be a natural phenomenon.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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