by Dr. Jeni Henrickson, Instructional Designer, DLINQ and Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

While technology has afforded some of us the privilege to work remotely during this pandemic, and/or the opportunity to work more flexible hours, technology has also exacerbated the inequities in our workforce and work spaces, just as it has in our learning spaces. In this post, we focus on the gig economy and trends that have been observed in this sphere during the COVID pandemic, in particular.

The gig economy, sometimes referred to as the platform economy, has been variously defined since the term originated in the early 2000s. Some definitions broadly include any freelance/temporary/contract/independent work. For the purpose of this article, however, we are referring to a narrower definition confined to digital app-based work with a public-facing service component, such as found at Instacart, Uber, Lyft, Shipt, Task Rabbit, DoorDash, and GrubHub.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one in ten workers rely on gig work for their primary income. When you narrow the scope specifically to app-based gig workers, a whopping 72 percent work full-time as gig workers. The pandemic has only increased the number of gig workers operating worldwide. For example, Upwork reported a 50% increase in freelancer sign-ups, and InstaCart has hired more than 550,000 gig workers in 2020.

Many have turned to gig work as a stand-in for a lost job, to supplement decreased income, or for more flexible work hours to meet the need of caring for family as schools and daycares close to in-person events. Unemployment rates during the pandemic have skyrocketed, weighing most heavily on Black and Latina women and some of our lowest-paid workers, as illustrated in this article about December 2020 unemployment figures. In addition, Black and Latino workers “make up less than 29 percent of the nation’s total workforce, but they comprise almost 42 percent of workers for app-based companies” (Letter to Congress from the National Employment Law Project et al, 2021).

Inequities faced by gig workers are many:

  • More than half of gig workers don’t have access to employer-provided benefits, including health care, yet are often at heightened risk for exposure to COVID due to the face-to-face interactions required of many gig jobs. 
  • On average, gig workers earn about 58% less than full-time employees.
  • Gig workers struggle with an unpredictable stream of work.
  • Gig workers are typically taxed at a higher rate than traditional workers because they are self-employed, and thus don’t benefit from having their employment taxes paid by an employer on their behalf.
    (Includes data drawn from a 2017 Prudential report)

While many companies that hire gig workers saw their profits rise during the pandemic (companies like Target, Amazon, and InstaCart), the workers themselves did not experience increased financial benefits, despite often being at risk of contracting COVID through their work and facing pandemic-related hardships, like being arrested for breaking a city’s curfew while trying to deliver an order.

One pandemic-related disturbing trend is the increasing surveillance of gig workers (there is a similar trend occurring in schools and universities). Surveillance is not new to gig workers (nor to schools and universities); it is often the foundation on which the algorithmic management of gig workers is performed. However, the pandemic has increased surveillance of gig workers for many, adding location tracking, facial recognition, productivity tracking, and other forms of surveillance that differentially impact marginalized workers.

Gig workers have little control over what data are collected and how those data are used to make decisions about workers’ tasks and compensation. Willy Solis, a Shipt worker in Texas who has become an organizer for gig workers, criticized Shipt’s use of data to determine workers’ compensation, saying “They say they are paying on ‘effort,’ but we don’t know what variables are involved, what they are really measuring” (Reuters, 2020; note: an MIT study found that 41% of Shipt workers were earning less under Shipt’s new “effort”-based pay algorithm; see also problems with Lyft’s new “priority mode” program).

Because the nature of gig work is fragmented, gig workers struggle to organize to fight for better work conditions. Without collective bargaining power, gig workers face retaliation for seeking better conditions or for raising public awareness of the challenges facing gig workers. And, as much of the algorithmic decision-making processes are obscured from workers and the public, legal challenges to those practices are difficult or impossible. Many gig workers have resorted to posting their stories to social media to put public pressure on companies to respond to COVID-related support requests.

A recent proposition on California ballots brought some of these inequities to public attention. Prop 22, as it’s known, was a nearly $200 million effort funded by gig companies to strike down a law that made gig workers employees (as opposed to independent contractors). Though Prop 22 unfortunately passed, winning 58% of the vote, gig workers and unions have now filed suit in the California Supreme Court to have the measure overturned. Labor scholar Karen Gregory notes that the legal classification of workers as contractors, rather than employees, shifts the risks of employment primarily or entirely to the workers. This “demutualization of risk” is particularly dangerous during a pandemic, as gig workers take on risks to their health and their lives.

A powerful letter to Congress was just published January 25, 2021, demanding labor protections specifically for app-based gig workers. The letter, signed by a multitude of organizations from the National Employment Law Project to the Economic Policy Institute to the NAACP, notes: “Our communities thrive when people have the financial stability of a livable wage, the flexibility to stay home when sick without risking financial ruin, and access to unemployment assistance for which their employer has paid its fair share.”

We encourage everyone to learn more and to support the rights of gig workers, understanding that these disturbing trends are not relegated to gig workers alone. The nature of employment in general has been gradually shifting more toward contract, remote, and temporary work. A June 2020 Gartner report showed that nearly one-third of employers were replacing full-time employees with contract or gig workers, presumably to reduce the financial commitments associated with a full-time workforce. As aptly noted in Data & Society: “Firms beyond the app-based gig economy are likely to take advantage of the legal claims gig companies have pressed to get around existing labor laws and worker protections” (Amrute, Rosenblat, & Callaci, 2020).

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Keep reading!

What to do if your boss is an algorithm, Karen Gregory

The Rise of the Platform Economy, by Martin Kenney and John Zysman

Labor Futures, which includes a section on Labor During the Pandemic, from Data & Society

All a Gig-Economy Pioneer Had to Do Was “Politely Disagree” It Was Violating Federal Law and the Labor Department Walked Away, Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott, and Ariana Tobin

See the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the most recent data and breakdowns for electronically mediated gig work.

See the Gig Economy Data Hub for a nice explanation of different gig data sources and definitions

Did you miss the first four Digital Detox 2021 articles? View them on our Digital Detox site