Tag Archives: Gig work

New Recommendations on Improving Data on Contingent and Alternative Work Arrangements

The workplace is changing. We have seen more evidence of that in recent months as workplaces have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, many of us wanted to learn more about telework, flexible work hours, and independent contracting. We also wanted to know more about intermittent or short-term work found through mobile devices, unpredictable work schedules, and other employment relationships we might not think of as traditional. It’s our job at BLS to keep up with these new work relationships and figure out how to measure them.

In 2018, we released data collected in 2017 about people in contingent and alternative work arrangements. Contingent workers are people who do not expect their jobs to last or who report their jobs are temporary. Alternative work arrangements include independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, and workers provided by contract firms. We also published data in 2018 about electronically mediated work. All of these data reflect the rapidly changing workplace.

Those reports received a lot of attention, but policymakers, employers, researchers, and others told us they want to know more about these nontraditional workers. We need to understand people in jobs that often involve doing short-term tasks, such as ridesharing or data-entry services. Our 2017 survey included a few questions about these arrangements, but this work can be complex and varied. That makes it hard to measure nontraditional work arrangements with just a few questions.

To effectively analyze these hard-to-measure work arrangement, BLS sought out experts on nontraditional work. In 2019, we contracted with the Committee on National Statistics to explore what we should measure if we had the funding to collect and publish more data about these workers. We asked the committee not to recommend changes to the main Current Population Survey, the large monthly survey of U.S. households from which we measure the unemployment rate and other important labor market measures. The committee had free rein, however, to recommend topics we should examine in any future edition of the Contingent Worker Supplement to the Current Population Survey. We also asked the committee to recommend changes to the survey design and methods of data collection if we were to conduct the supplement again.

The Committee on National Statistics is a federally supported independent organization whose mission is to improve the statistical methods and information that guide public policies. The committee moved quickly to form a group of experts on the relevant topics. I asked these experts to review the Contingent Worker Supplement and consider other sources of information on nontraditional work arrangements. The group was impressive and included a former BLS Commissioner, a former Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, and several experts in economics and survey methods. They all volunteered their time to help us improve the Contingent Worker Supplement.

The group held public meetings and a workshop, hearing from experts, data users, and policymakers to understand what data would be the most valuable. At the end of their year-long review, they produced a report with specific recommendations in July of 2020 about measurement objectives and data collection.

BLS thanks the Committee on National Statistics and the expert panel for the time and effort they put into the report. Their recommendations thoughtfully balanced the desire to measure everything about this important topic with the limited time and information survey respondents can give us. In the coming months, we will study the report. It will guide us as we consider how to update the Contingent Worker Supplement to reflect the variety of work arrangements in the U.S. labor market.

Why This Counts: Measuring “Gig” Work

With so much chatter about the emerging “gig” economy, you may wonder if BLS has a stat for that. While our regular measures of labor market activity probably reflect a lot of “gig” work, we can’t currently break this work out separately. To do that, we need to repeat a survey specially designed to measure contingent and alternative work arrangements. Fortunately, BLS has conducted such surveys in the past, and I am very happy to say that we will do it again in 2017.

If you follow our monthly and quarterly employment reports, you know we publish lots of information not just on the number of jobs gained or lost but on the characteristics of jobs and workers. What industries or occupations are growing or shrinking? What are the employment trends for states, counties, or metro areas? How many people work part time, either by choice or because they prefer a full-time job but can only find part-time work? How many people are self-employed? How many people have more than one job? These are just some of the questions we can answer regularly with our employment reports. Other questions are harder to answer.

Many people want to know about workers whose jobs are temporary or irregular or not expected to last. So what kinds of jobs are those? You may be familiar with services where drivers use their own cars to take people where they want to go. Customers who need a ride use a computer or mobile app to request a pickup. If a driver agrees to provide a ride, a third party electronically receives the payment from the rider and pays the driver. Other examples of workers we want to know more about are people who sign up online to perform tasks for pay when it is convenient for them.

While many of these short-term jobs are new, similar jobs have been around a long time in the U.S. economy: substitute teachers, truck drivers, freelance journalist, day laborers in agriculture or construction, on-call equipment movers, actors, and photographers. These jobs are often short term, and many people in these occupations now go online to match up with potential employers. Some people call jobs like these “gigs,” much like the Saturday night gigs your high school garage band played. At BLS we call these contingent or alternative employment arrangements. What do we mean by those terms? Contingent workers do not expect their jobs to last, or their jobs are temporary. Workers with alternative employment arrangements include independent contractors, on-call workers, or people who work through temporary help agencies or contract firms.

Not to brag about being ahead of the curve, but we first examined workers like these in a 1995 survey. We conducted similar surveys in 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2005. Sadly, we haven’t had funding to conduct the survey about contingent and alternative work arrangements since 2005. However, I am delighted the U.S. Department of Labor is funding a one-time update to the survey in May 2017.

BLS will conduct the survey on contingent and alternative employment as part of the May 2017 Current Population Survey. That’s the monthly survey from which we measure the unemployment rate and other important labor market indicators. The questions will identify workers with contingent or alternative work arrangements; measure workers’ satisfaction with their current arrangement; and measure earnings, health insurance coverage, and eligibility for employer-provided retirement plans. To be able to compare today’s economy with results from previous surveys, most of the questions will be the same as they were in earlier surveys. We also will explore whether we need to add questions to reflect changes in work arrangements since the 2005 survey.

To keep this information coming in the future, the 2017 President’s budget requests funds for BLS to permanently conduct one supplement to the Current Population Survey each year. If Congress approves this funding, we would ask the questions on contingent and alternative work arrangements every 2 years, with questions on other important topics in the alternating years.

We have a lot of work to get ready for the survey next year, but I’m very excited that all of us will soon have these measures again after so many years without them.