We need to make gig work better. Here’s what it would take.

New York NY/USA-March 13, 2020 A delivery person with a DoorDash branded tote on his bicycle in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York
Editor's note:

This piece was first published by Fast Company

Berenize, a 26-year-old child care worker in Long Beach, Calif., has struggled to find good work over the last few years. Berenize is highly qualified, trusted, and has always received positive feedback from families. But since the pandemic, she has not been able to find a job with consistent hours that keeps her close enough to home, where she is the primary caregiver for her two disabled siblings, and that lets her continue studying to become a nurse. 

Labor Day should remind us that many of the workers, like Berenize, who make our lives possible still work in the shadows, insecure when it comes to income and basic protections that all workers deserve. 

Berenize is a gig worker. She seeks what most workers desire: work that offers a flexible schedule, is suited to her talents and interests, and lets her tend to the other parts of her life. She also needs fair pay, benefits, protections against harassment and other threats, and the ability to speak up and be heard when problems arise. In short, she needs flexible work that is also quality work—what many with professional jobs enjoy. 

Berenize and hundreds of workers like her are partners with the Workers Lab in an innovative effort to make this kind of gig work a reality. Set to launch with government, business, and local community leaders in Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif. this month, this effort will test at scale the nation’s first public tech platform for good gig work, which was initially piloted in Long Beach. 

The platform gives local leaders the ability to match gig workers with tailored work opportunities, and gives gig workers the ability to control who they gig for, when, and for how much—all while ensuring they have critical rights, benefits, and protections. Our initial pilot demonstrated higher hourly wages and worker satisfaction. It’s an example of how worker-centered innovation and experimentation can help us figure out how to make gig work good—and thereby make the economy more fair and inclusive for everyone. 

Gig work, defined as any income-earning activity outside of long-term, direct-hire employment relationships, is not new. It has existed as long as work has existed. We know that the proliferation of app-based work through companies such as Uber, TaskRabbit, and others has made gig work a household phrase. But gig workers remain largely excluded from the systems originally designed, early in the 20th century, to protect primarily white, male workers in traditional employment arrangements. 

Surveys confirm that across a range of age, gender, racial, ethnic, and other differences, a growing share of U.S. workers are seeking out forms of work that offer them some level of agency over their time. As the number of gig workers increases, so does our responsibility to ensure that they receive the same types of rights, protections, and benefits enjoyed by other workers. But with so many contested issues and competing interests related to money, power, politics, and the law when it comes to how gig workers should be classified—especially at the state level, where most labor policy gets made—it’s getting harder to see how that responsibility will get met, if at all. 

For example, current debates in Minneapolis, Washington, and Massachusetts, all coming after long and expensive battles in California, reflect an entrenched tug-of-war between business and labor interests that has made lasting and meaningful reforms very difficult to achieve. 

We believe a blueprint for good gig work—one that addresses public policy and business practices and that’s informed and designed by gig workers themselves—could be what moves the conversation forward, toward fair solutions. 

That’s why last year, the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative and the Workers Lab launched the Gig Worker Learning Project to learn more about gig work in partnership with workers themselves. It’s a participatory research project, meaning gig workers are active participants not only in sharing their stories, but also in shaping the questions, process, and analysis. As we organize conversations with a diverse group of gig workers across backgrounds, geographies, and industries to better understand their challenges, as well as their ideas about how to make gig work good work, a few themes are emerging. 

One is that many gig workers find meaning and take pride in their work. They just want it to be better-quality work than it is now, to be able to rely on their income, and to work in safe conditions. And they have many promising, and sometimes surprising, ideas about how to get there—which we will be sharing soon. Once we bring workers back together to help us analyze the data they helped generate, we plan to launch the largest-ever worker-centered survey of gig workers in the U.S., which will quantify our findings on a much larger scale. The findings will inform the blueprint and catalyze even richer conversations between workers about solutions. 

Our early learning from and with workers already offers some ideas about what principles should inform a blueprint for good gig work, and what that blueprint could include. The blueprint should empower workers to both inform public policy and shape evolving business models and practices. It should start with workers’ lived experiences and voices and address the needs of customers and businesses in communities all across the country. 

As to scope, based on our conversations with gig workers and a review of the competing policy proposals out there, the blueprint would need to address at least three things: preserving workers’ agency over their time while guarding against exploitation; ensuring basic protections suited to the wide-ranging nature of gigs and where the work gets done (much of it outdoors); and establishing and funding core benefits that attach to all forms of work. Those benefits could potentially build on our current foundation of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, in which workers, employers, and government share risks and costs in the interest of workers’ basic economic security and well-being. 

A variety of sources offer promising ideas about how to better support workers outside of standard employment. A recent report from the United Kingdom suggests how to empower gig workers with modern regulations, for example, and the ongoing advocacy and legislative effort to create a national Domestic Workers Bill of Rights shows how we can make sure domestic workers, who don’t have federal labor protections, still have time-off policies and workplace protections. 

But what’s most clear is that gig workers themselves can help decisionmakers in government, business, and consumer advocacy get to the best, fairest, and most sustainable solutions. As of now, there is no shared solutions strategy driven by a broad range of gig workers, and creating the infrastructure for that is a tall order, largely because gig work is often solitary and physically dispersed. A given group of gig workers may perform a similar task, but they typically aren’t working in the same place—another challenge described by many participating in our research. 

Gig workers like Berenize, and others with very different backgrounds, understand these challenges better than any of us, which is why we must follow their lead on the path to solutions. We’re calling on those who believe in dignity for workers to join us on this journey—to think differently, perhaps more creatively, about what work looks like in the U.S. economy now and invest in gig workers and what they are telling us they want, which is to make work better, more modern, and inclusive.