The gig economy is a bridge over the pandemic and beyond
Even for those who remain employed, dislocations resulting from closed schools, less travel, and other collateral consequences of COVID-19 lead to reduced hours and less pay. In this context, flexible work of the type offered through app-based platforms such as Shipt, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Uber becomes all the more important as a private safety net for those between jobs or simply in need of extra income.
This is why it’s so refreshing and important that leaders in Washington and Silicon Valley are working to find ways to improve the quality of those jobs and to establish a new status somewhere between employee and self-employment. For example, Uber released a proposal for a full suite of benefits and protections for gig workers, while lawmakers such as Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican serving Montana, are pushing to establish funds to help states experiment with portable benefits for gig workers of all kinds.
But this is only the beginning: If America is going to continue to innovate and create a new economy after the pandemic recedes — one that helps provide more security, opportunity, and flexibility for independent workers and particularly for those in the gig economy — we must “change the status quo to protect all workers,” as Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in the New York Times.
To do this, underlying structures that protect our workers, including benefits systems, job-related insurance, and anti-harassment laws, must be altered to embrace the independently employed. Like it or not, we shouldn’t continue building an economy reliant on the presumption that everyone is a full-time employee with the traditional accompanying pay, benefits, and limited flexibility.
Before the pandemic, a record percentage of all jobs were full-time, while self-employment (which includes “gig” work) had trended downward for decades. However, given the new realities of work, it is reasonable to anticipate that gig jobs may play an important role in the economic recovery period. After all, most people who work on these platforms are seeking extra income for a short period of time between jobs, and survey after survey shows that nearly all workers associated with them prize the flexibility these platforms provide.
In light of this, trying to turn these people into full-time workers, as the state of California plans to mandate and as some Democrats in Congress have proposed doing everywhere, would destroy much of what makes these types of jobs useful to consumers and workers alike. And yet, we still need to make this environment friendlier and easier to navigate for gig seekers, whether they side-hustle for a day or a year.
Right now, for those trying to make a full-time income off side jobs and apps, access to the benefits and rights that come with full-time employment are difficult or nonexistent. That current structure doesn’t help them and, in many cases, isn’t good for employers seeking to manage their risks and retain good workers. For this reason, a combination of free market incentives and laws would allow more people to turn driving or delivery into a full-time job.
While these types of opportunities will probably never fully replace much of the economy, they will help encourage innovation and provide opportunity where little existed before, particularly in harder hit communities where larger businesses aren’t interested in investing. Indeed, if Congress and the private sector work together to make a wider range of lucrative jobs available, America will be better positioned to rebuild more quickly and effectively as this pandemic recedes.