We May Soon Get Better at Measuring the Gig Economy – Real Time Economics

The government wants to better measure part-time workers, temporary employees and independent contractors that are getting more scrutiny as companies like Uber look beyond traditional full-time staff.

The U.S. government is about to get better at measuring the gig economy—or at least that’s its intention.

Skeptics say gauging this pocket of on-demand workers is a difficult task that the government has failed at before.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez announced this week the government’s plan to get a handle on the matter as U.S. workplaces experience what he called “profound changes.”

For the first time since 2005, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will team up with the Census Bureau to survey the scope of “contingent worker” arrangements. It will help the government set policy that fosters innovation and economic security for workers, Mr. Perez said.

Think part-time workers, temporary employees and independent contractors that are getting more scrutiny as companies like Uber look beyond traditional full-time staff. These faces of the gig economy are reshaping how Americans work and in the process sprouting new industries and job structures.

They’re also creating clashes about how longtime labor laws should apply to modern work arrangements. When the Labor Department suggested last summer that more businesses should be designating workers as employees instead of independent contractors, business groups said the agency was showing a bias against independent contracting and stretching the definition of employee.

The government’s view on how gig workers should be classified can affect their compensation. Misclassifying employees as independent contractors, for example, prevents them from getting overtime pay and certain benefits, Mr. Perez has said.

One recent study suggests U.S. labor law needs a new classification for gig-economy jobs.

The agencies will gather new information on the gig economy as part of the Current Population Survey of May 2017. The BLS will work with the Census Bureau to revive what’s known as the Contingent Workers Supplement to that survey. It will cover contingent workers—which the BLS defines as those who don’t have an implicit or explicit contract for ongoing employment—and alternative employment arrangements, which include independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers and workers provided by contract firms.

The supplement has had its critics, including Annette Bernhardt, a senior researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. In a January 2014 paper, she criticized the previous attempt to measure contracted work. “Unfortunately, the estimates from this survey are not reliable because they depend on workers accurately identifying that they are working for a contractor,” she said, adding that this can be challenging given the complexity of work arrangements.

Ms. Bernhardt did say in her paper that the supplement had been “useful” for measuring on-call work and direct-hire temps. She said in an email this week that she wasn’t comfortable commenting on the government’s renewed attempt because she doesn’t know the details about how it will be conducted.

Gauging the gig economy can also be challenging because of disagreements over what qualifies as contingent work. Some researchers argue that independent contractors can have long-term stable employment, while others say nonstandard work is contingent by nature, Ms. Bernhardt said.

Better data could help settle questions about whether the gig economy is the big deal some people say it is. While there have been claims that America is turning into a nation of gig workers, there’s also evidence that workers are actually becoming less likely to be self-employed and hold multiple jobs.

More than a decade has passed since the BLS took a stab at measuring this part of the workforce, so it’s possible that time will make a difference. A BLS spokeswoman said the agency stands behind the data produced in its previous work, and is reviewing the questionnaire for the new supplement.

Mr. Perez is optimistic. He said in his blog post that the renewed undertaking “will give us reliable, credible insight.”

Related reading:

Proof of a ‘Gig Economy’ Revolution Is Hard to Find

As the Gig Economy Changes Work, So Should Rules

An Enduring Mystery of the ‘Gig Economy’: Why Are So Few People Self-Employed?

Is the ‘Gig Economy’ a Thing? Ask Women

Q&A: Steven Hill on Airbnb, Uber and Whether the Gig Economy Is Tearing Apart Our Cities



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28 January 2016 | 3:07 pm – Source: blogs.wsj.com


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