Workers and the online gig economy

gig economy worker checking phone

Recent developments in the U.S. economy present opportunities and challenges for how to effectively promote widely shared economic prosperity in a changing labor market. The proliferation of nontraditional and contingent employment relationships, fostered in part by new technology platforms, creates new opportunities, but also new regulatory, legal, and public policy challenges. Consumers and workers alike now use online technology and apps to contract for specific, on-demand services such as cleaning, handiwork, shopping, cooking, driving, and landscaping. These developments constitute what has been referred to as the “online gig” or “on-demand” economy, where work is taking place in a series of one-off gigs, rather than in an ongoing relationship with a single employer. The emergence of the online gig economy has increased policy interest in the issue of contingent work arrangements, which broadly include independent contractors as well as part-time, temporary, seasonal, or subcontracted workers.

In some respects, these on-demand gigs benefit both workers and the economy, and help to support job growth and household incomes in the post–Great Recession labor market recovery. Such gigs often feature flexible hours, low or no training costs, and generally few barriers to worker entry. These features have enabled gig-economy workers, including those with other jobs, to generate new income or to supplement their primary incomes during difficult times in a strained job market. Moreover, customers purchasing such on-demand services have benefited from the convenience and availability of services as well as the low cost at which they are often offered.

However, other aspects of the gig economy have raised some concerns. First, these jobs generally confer few employer-provided benefits and workplace protections. This stands in contrast to traditional employer–employee relationships that often come with manifold assurances and protections, such as overtime compensation, minimum wage protections, health insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, maternity and paternity leave, employer-sponsored retirement plans, workers’ compensation for injuries, paid sick leave, and the ability to engage in collective action. Second, technological developments occurring in the workplace have come to blur the legal definitions of the terms “employee” and “employer” in ways that were unimaginable when employment regulations like the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 were written. The evolution of the work relationship over time has led to important regulatory gaps. Some observers perceive that the online gig economy is leading to a rise in the share of work arrangements that are precarious, as compared to traditional employer–employee arrangements, and that the enhanced flexibility of the marketplace has come at a cost of economic security for many workers. In fact, systematic and timely data on contingent work arrangements are hard to come by so economists are still trying to figure out how common and widespread they are and what their impact on workers’ economic security might be. The absence of systematic data makes it all the more difficult to analyze the costs and benefits of contingent work arrangements for workers and businesses, and thus inform the appropriate policy and regulatory response. While the online gig economy is bringing this challenge to the fore, the broader issues surrounding classification and protection of contingent workers are not new or isolated. Importantly, the use of subcontracted and temporary workers, and workers with irregular or on-call shifts, also may require new regulatory frameworks.

In this framing paper, The Hamilton Project describes the broader economic context of contingent employer–employee relationships and where the emerging on-demand gig economy fits in this context. It also highlights the regulatory and measurement gaps that need to be resolved.