Just How Many Gig Workers Are There, Anyway?

DOL says 1 percent use apps, but millions more may be counted as jobless

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer December 5, 2018
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​Federal data show that about 1 percent of workers in the United States use apps and online platforms to find and perform gig work.

The Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveyed workers in May 2017 to measure how many workers find and complete these short-term gig jobs through mobile apps and websites. The information was obtained from the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) of about 60,000 households used to produce the nation's labor market data.

"The purpose … was to identify the number of workers who secure work through a website or mobile app, as opposed to a staffing agency or other traditional methods of seeking [contingent] employment," said James A. Paretti Jr., a shareholder in the Washington, D.C., office of employment law firm Littler.

The BLS concluded that at the time of the survey, there were approximately 1.6 million workers using apps and online platforms to find gig work, or about 1 percent of the total employed workforce. The survey also found that 72 percent of workers who found gigs by this method relied on the work as their primary job, while 26 percent considered it supplemental income.

The findings weren't included in a controversial report the agency released in June, which concluded that the nation's contingent workforce has declined over the past 13 years. The BLS defined contingent workers as people who do not have a contract for ongoing employment or who are in jobs structured as temporary. The report showed that in May 2017, 3.8 percent of workers held contingent jobs, down from 4.1 percent in February 2005, the last time the survey was conducted.

The findings countered recent industry reports that showed up to a third of the nation's workforce participate in the gig economy, but the June report didn't include workers who use part-time gigs to supplement income from more traditional jobs, nor did it include the workers who find gig work through online platforms.

Paretti explained that the 1 percent figure is "largely consistent" with a survey conducted in 2015 for the RAND American Life Panel. "The study … estimated that workers who provide services through online intermediaries constituted 0.5 percent of the workforce in 2015, and other estimates of the size of the online gig economy in 2014 and 2015 likewise arrived at figures ranging from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent."

He added that it wasn't clear whether the slightly higher BLS estimate reflects a real increase over the past two years in the number of workers doing gig work through online platforms, or if the discrepancy is due to other factors, such as the wording of the survey questions.

"But Littler has found that the rise of [gig work] is already having greater impacts on the labor market and companies' business plans than their seemingly small numbers suggest," he said.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Millions More Gig Workers May Be Classified as Unemployed

Analyzing another dataset illustrates how difficult it is to nail down the number of gig workers in the United States. The problem begins with defining them.

"No clear consensus currently exists on what constitutes gig work," said Mary Allard, a division chief in the BLS Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics in Washington, D.C. "Most definitions include many self-employed workers, temporary workers and independent contractors. Many definitions also include people who do gig work as their primary source of income, as well as employed people who supplement their earnings with gig work."

One issue is that people may not consider what they do for pay to be work, Allard said. "If it is true that many people no longer think of themselves as working or having jobs, the employment statistics that the CPS and a host of other surveys produce may no longer be accurate, which is worrisome."

One indication of possible misclassification may be found in the responses on "income-generating activities" from the American Time Use Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. It asks more broadly about activities people do for pay and found that at least 657,000 and as many as 4.6 million people earned income from 2012 to 2016 but were not counted as employed. These are people who were doing activities for pay that were not part of a job or business, such as being paid for hobbies, like taking photographs, or crafts, like manufacturing chairs; intermittent freelance work, such as writing or participating in musical or theatrical performances; or service work, like making home repairs or doing yardwork.  

"If reclassified, these workers would increase total employment by between 0.4 percent and 3.0 percent," Allard said. "Although not trivial, these numbers do not suggest that a substantial portion of American workers are being missed in measures of employment," she clarified.

She added that misclassification has potentially the largest effect on the estimate of youth employment. "Reclassifying uncounted workers among those ages 15 to 24 could raise employment by between 304,000 and 2.1 million, or a maximum of 9.6 percent," she said. "The greater effect on this group is perhaps not surprising because young adults have traditionally been associated with informal work, such as babysitting, housesitting and yardwork."

The discussion over who should be counted in gig work comes as lawmakers are debating measures to address the issue and update tax and employment regulations for the gig economy, particularly around worker classification and access to benefits.

Take Part in New Research

On Dec. 3, HR People + Strategy, SHRM's network for executives and thought leaders in human resources, announced a new research initiative designed to explore the role of contingent workers in today's workforce. The research, conducted by industry leader Josh Bersin, will be based on a survey of HR executives across all industries as well as in-depth, one-on-one interviews. 

The survey is open through Dec. 14 to anyone with responsibility for hiring, training or managing contingent workers. It takes about 10 minutes to complete, and all answers submitted will be anonymous.  

The results will be released in early 2019 and will present data on a wide range of topics related to the contingent workforce, including business drivers, sourcing, management practices, business benefits and challenges. 

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