The Gig Economy and Job Quality


A recent study by the Brookings Institution unpacks federal statistics for the gig economy of time-limited jobs tasks (10 minutes to 10 months). The researchers’ look at Census Bureau data is noteworthy in part for its shedding of light on the quality of gig jobs.

First things first. Let us define our terms.

In the Census data, a “nonemployer,” refers to “self-employed individuals operating unincorporated businesses (known as sole proprietorships), which may or may not be the owner’s principal source of income.” We will return to the larger issue of workers with multiple jobs.

First, we turn to growth of nonemployers, according to the study.

“To begin with, nonemployer firms — though still relatively small in overall economic value historically (accounting for about 3% of total business receipts) — are becoming a more important factor in the entire economy, having come to encompass nearly 24 million “businesses” in 2014 up from 15 million in 1997 and 22 million in 2007. (By comparison, total US payroll employment was about 145 million in 2014, up from 129 million in 1997).”

In the gig economy, workers can and do toil at a second or even a third job to gain extra wage-income. Why do workers seek additional jobs?

Nonunion jobs, the vast majority of private-sector employment where most people work, pay lower wages and offer fewer benefits. Consider the decline of workers covered by labor union contracts, from 26.5% in 1977 to 12.3% in 2015, according to Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson.

Employers have forged a workforce where unions are in steep decline. That in part means less take-home pay for workers.

They in turn seek further income to make ends meet. They turn to individual solutions such as taking on one or more additional jobs.

The gig economy provides such opportunity. That is not all.

A “nonemployer” is receiving wage-income for her paid labor without federal and state labor laws that protect traditional company employees. To work for pay without such protective laws weakens labor standards.

That puts the self-employed at-risk in ways big and small. The same riskiness applies to customers of gig workers.

In brief, a lack of regulatory labor oversight decreases safety for buyers and sellers in the gig economy. What was the workplace health and safety situation prior to the establishment of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which began enforcement in April 1971, under GOP President Richard Nixon?

“Before OSHA there was no national mechanism to respond to safety problems on the job,” said Daniel M. Berman, an organizer and writer about occupational safety and workers’ rights for almost a half-century, and Author of Death on the Job (1978) and co-author of Who Owns the Sun? (1996). “The business community almost immediately worked to hamstring the agency politically and legally.”

In 2016, the gig economy relies on mobile apps and websites. These devices join gig workers with customers.

Tap a screen. Click a link.

“Overall, there has been a clear surge in nonemployer firms’ business activity in the last decade, which almost certainly reflects, at least in part, the rise of online platforms,” according to the Brookings study. To read “Tracking the gig economy: New numbers” by Ian Hathaway and Mark Muro, visit

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2016

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