While having dinner with a friend last night, I told her I was working on an article for The One Union about the gig economy. Her first reaction was a puzzled one until I defined it and she quickly understood what I was talking about. She works in human resources for a typical brick & mortar company but sees people doing gig work all over. The term itself was just a new one to her, as it is to many people who are not directly a part of it yet. That’s likely to change quickly, as the “gig economy” in the US is growing rapidly.
Explosion of Gig Economy Jobs
In recent years, more and more workers are starting to earn their income from home, do freelance work, or participate as independent contractors in the gig economy. This used to be unique to artists, musicians, writers, and select other groups, but it’s taken off with the advent of things like Lyft, Uber, Rover, Honor, Airbnb, Amazon Flex, social media marketing, and numerous jobs in the technology, virtual reality, and robotics worlds.
A year ago, in a CNN Money article, Intuit CEO Brad Smith was quoted saying the “gig economy is now estimated to be about 34% of the workforce and expected to be 43% by the year 2020”. These are some impressive numbers, and bring up a number of questions that will need to be addressed. In an earlier article on our blog, the author asked, “How will we as a country respond to this new reality in which working people will no longer have employer-provided benefits, health insurance, and long-term employment opportunities?”
Investopedia says “temporary, flexible jobs are commonplace and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees”. This is a pretty sweet deal for companies.
How Do Employers Benefit?
Look at what they DON’T have to pay for:
- Time off
- Office space & equipment
- Medical/dental insurance
- 401k matching
- Company pensions
- Workers compensation
- Disability insurances
- Social Security /Medicare taxes
For any company, wages are a big piece of the spending pie, but the above “fringe benefits” can be quite costly as well (often 20% or more of an employee’s cost to the employer). Why wouldn’t companies look at hiring gig workers, who don’t generally get these other “benefits”? Their bottom dollar looks a whole lot better if they don’t, and the CEOs get more cash to line their pockets once again.
Pros of a Gig Economy Job
As a person currently in a “traditional” job (other than this writing gig), I’m expected to be “at work” eight hours a day, though there’s an unwritten expectation that I’m electronically available at other times as well, including some weekends. While I enjoy what I do, the idea of having a gig career sounds pretty enticing some days.
- I’d save an hour in commuting time, money on gas, and wear on my car
- I wouldn’t have to get “dressed up” for work
- I could schedule daytime appointments if needed
- If someone in my family was in crisis, I could help deal with it
- I could decide to take a mental health day if needed
- No “boss” to answer to
- No workplace drama
- I could accept the jobs/gigs I want to take
So yes, there are apparent positives to this life career choice.
Cons of a Gig Economy Job
And then the practical and rational side of me flips the coin.
What if I got sick, like really sick? Would I have affordable health insurance? How do I make sure I’m covering my taxes right if all my wages are in 1099s? How will investing in retirement accounts work and will I have to invest more since no employer is “matching” anything for me? If I become disabled, what kinds of protection do I have if no one is really my employer? What if I go for a long period and no one has any gigs for me? Can I get unemployment?
The gig economy is not an easy one for workers, and really, it’s not altogether “fair” at all; it’s a boon to companies, but not always to the individual worker. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights the many pitfalls an individual could face in the Amazon Flex delivery gig–something that looks like a great side job until you dig deeper and find that all the personal costs could lead to a someone making even less than minimum wage. Businesses win. Workers do not.
Tough to Get a Mortgage
Another challenge gig economy workers will face is qualifying for a mortgage. The current system demands proof of consistent income, something that can be difficult to show when you are working a gig economy job. The website bankrate.com has prepared a useful guide for gig economy workers applying for a mortgage.
Companies Avoid the True Cost of Employees
Companies get to avoid the “true cost” of an employee, and this is a scary thought, when our current government looks to be slashing benefits and threatening to shut down health care, especially with limits on protections for people with preexisting conditions. If we end up with nearly half the country working gig jobs in the next 10 years, who will care for those people when bad things happen or when the money from gig jobs isn’t enough to support an individual or family? Our tax dollars will have to increase to cover extra needs for health care, food stamps, welfare assistance, and affordable housing subsidies. Again, the “regular” Americans will lose and the corporations will win. This is a great time to think about how The One Union could work to make this a reality that benefits the many, instead of (yet again) lining the pockets of the one percenters.
Unless a gig worker is independently well-off or has a life partner with insurance and protections from his/her traditional job, the choice to move to gig employment is a risky one that should be carefully chosen. As our country is starting to see this change take place, how do we protect ourselves as workers? It’s quite a paradigm shift and is going to take thoughtful planning and consideration from the government, businesses, individuals, and educational institutions.
That might be a pretty tough gig.