American workers are experiencing, by many measures, one of the best job markets ever. The unemployment rate has matched a 53-year low. Job listings per available worker are at historic highs. Wages, while not quite keeping up with inflation, are rising at their fastest pace in decades.
So why would people keep doing gig work, a notoriously difficult and insecure way to make a living?
Online platforms like Uber and Lyft say the number of people providing services on their networks is rebounding steadily after a sharp decline early in the pandemic, while businesses like hotels and restaurants are breaking work into hour-by-hour increments available on demand.
Picking up shifts offers something that traditional permanent employment still generally doesn’t: the ability to work when and as much as you want, demand permitting, which is often essential to balance life obligations like school or child care.
And lately, inflation has provided an extra incentive. As the cost of rent and food soars, gig work can supplement primary jobs that don’t provide enough to live on or are otherwise unsatisfying.
Lexi Gervis, an executive at a financial management app called Steady, said that users’ data showed that more people were involved in gig work — and that the average gig income per worker grew — from the start of the pandemic through this summer.
“We were seeing this move towards multiple income streams, because that work was picked up as a stopgap and then continued,” Dr. Gervis said.
Take Denae Bettis, a 23-year-old Steady user living in Severn, Md. After dropping out of college, she got a job at UPS, and after a few years rose to become a safety supervisor, usually starting at 4 a.m. During the pandemic, she took on more responsibilities.
“The job got really stressful, and I felt like I had no way out,” Ms. Bettis said. So in June 2020, she started a side gig through Instacart, shopping for people holed up at home. The next month, she quit her job, making it easier for her to pursue her passion: working as a personal makeup artist, which often requires taking early-morning appointments.
Surviving on income from gigs — which for Ms. Bettis now include DoorDash as well as Instacart — isn’t easy. But Ms. Bettis thinks she can save enough money to open her own storefront.
“We just went through a period where millions died, so are you going to spend your time at your job if it doesn’t fulfill you?” Ms. Bettis said, summing up gig work’s appeal. “Everybody loves stability, but if the flexibility isn’t there, I don’t think a lot of people are going to go back.”
The State of Jobs in the United States
Employment gains in July, which far surpassed expectations, show that the labor market is not slowing despite efforts by the Federal Reserve to cool the economy.
- July Jobs Report: U.S. employers added 528,000 jobs in the seventh month of the year. The unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, down from 3.6 percent in June.
- Care Worker Shortages: A lack of child care and elder care options is forcing some women to limit their hours or has sidelined them altogether, hurting their career prospects.
- Downsides of a Hot Market: Students are forgoing degrees in favor of the attractive positions offered by employers desperate to hire. That could come back to haunt them.
- Slowing Down: Economists and policymakers are beginning to argue that what the economy needs right now is less hiring and less wage growth. Here’s why.
Labor advocates have long been concerned about businesses that depend on independent contractors, since those workers aren’t entitled to the rights and benefits that come with employee status, like employer contributions to payroll taxes and unemployment insurance. But while the model has gained traction, it has been difficult to pin down how fast the ranks of gig workers are growing.
The most accurate measure is Internal Revenue Service data on 1099 tax forms — the freelancers’ counterpart to the W-2 forms filed for employees — but that is available only to select researchers and released with a lag of several years. At last count, in 2018, a team of economists found that about 1.2 percent of workers with any earnings had at least some income from online platform work. (A Pew survey from 2021 found that the share of all adults with gig income in a 12-month period was about 9 percent.)
The closest government metric that is more timely comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which asks people whether they count themselves as self-employed. That number rose significantly as a share of the labor force from early 2020 to early this year. But it generally captures people for whom self-employment is the main source of income — which, for most gig workers, it isn’t. More likely, the bump represents an increase in the number of people working as home improvement contractors and owner-operator truck drivers — two longtime means of self-employment that surged during the pandemic — and some white-collar freelancers.
Less comprehensive but more specific data comes from third-party platforms like Steady, which allows nearly six million workers to track their often-variable sources of income and posts incentives from gig platforms to try working for them. From February 2020 to June 2022, Steady recorded a 31 percent increase in the share of workers on the app with 1099 income. More of those were women than men, with particular growth among single mothers. Freelance income per gig worker increased 13 percent.
At the same time, the lines between gig work and traditional employment are blurring.
Staffing agencies have long supplied temporary workers for industries like warehousing and light manufacturing, where they would have to show up at a certain time on certain days until the business no longer needed the extra labor. Now, some agencies also offer one-off, no-commitment shifts in workplaces that rarely used temp labor before, like restaurants, hotels and retailers.
Under this approach, while offering the flexibility of gig work, the staffing agencies usually serve as the employer and administer benefits. Workers are paid as W-2 employees, not independent contractors, which means that they’re still protected by federal labor laws and elements of the social safety net, including workers’ compensation in the event of an injury.
Snagajob, an hourly work platform, says that those shifts tripled from 2020 to 2021, and that they will probably quintuple in 2022 — mostly as side income because people’s regular jobs weren’t sufficient.
“I think if they were getting the ultimate flexibility and all the compensation they wanted from their full-time employer, there’s probably less of a need for shifts,” said Snagajob’s chief executive, Mathieu Stevenson. “But the reality is, at the overwhelming majority of businesses, you can’t offer as much flexibility. So this is a way to say, ‘If you do want to add an extra $150 because you need it, whether because you want to do something special with your family or you need to pay the light bill, this is an avenue.’”
More so than online gig jobs, it can also be a springboard to other opportunities.
It worked for Silvia Valladares, 24, who started picking up Snagajob shifts a few years ago to support herself as a college student studying fine arts in Richmond, Va., the company’s initial market. Dishwashing and catering at different places allowed her to fit work in between her classes. But while working at an event venue called Dover Hall, she took a shine to hospitality, and decided to make that her career.
“I got to know the regular staff and the management, and they got to know me,” Ms. Valladares said. “Eventually I asked if I could just work here, and they just put me on the regular staff.” Now, as bed-and-breakfast director, she’s the one posting gigs on Snagajob — which lately have been filling quickly.
Worker advocates say allowing many competing employers to post last-minute shifts through an intermediary is probably a better model than a world of platforms that change rates at will and lack many of the legal obligations that employers must meet. But they say it still leaves workers on the margins of the labor market. Research on labor outsourcing has generally shown that temp workers are compensated less generously than co-workers who are hired directly.
“You can look at it and say, ‘This is great, people need jobs, these companies can do the matching, it’s a win-win,’” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who has studied low-wage work. “The broader context is that it’s really not. It’s just a way for companies to shift costs and avoid economic responsibility.”
And while gig work has retained and even enhanced its appeal through the pandemic and recovery, it is not clear what will happen if the economy tips into recession and the number of conventional jobs starts to shrink.
Gig companies say it will bolster their labor supply, as the hardship caused by rising prices has. Uber said on its second-quarter earnings call that for 70 percent of its new drivers, the cost of living influenced their decision to join. “There’s no question that this operating environment is stronger for us,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive.
But in an economic downturn, an increase in worker availability for online platforms could coincide with a fall in demand. If customers reduce delivery orders and take fewer cab rides, it would be harder for those who depend on the apps to make a living.
That worries Willy Solis, a driver for the Target-owned delivery service Shipt in the Dallas area who has been an organizer for better conditions.
“When people are desperate for work, that’s usually what they want to do, is find something that’s easily obtainable,” he said. But what is good for the gig-work companies may not be good for the workers, he added. “Whenever they do hiring sprees,” he said, “we see an influx in gig work and a decrease in the amount of work that’s available to us.”