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The changing nature of employment, including the move to more online-based commerce, has increased the number of on-demand or "gig" workers. Estimates vary as to the number of workers in the so-called gig economy, but most place this number in the millions. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Labor now seeks an official government record of these on-demand workers. This week, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez announced that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in conjunction with the Census Bureau, will revive the Contingent Worker Supplement to the Current Population Survey in an attempt to capture a more accurate picture of the workforce.
This survey was last used in 2005, when it was discontinued for funding reasons. According to Perez, information on contingent workers will once again be provided as part of the May 2017 Current Population Survey. Perez claims this data "will give us reliable, credible insight into what’s going on across a range of work arrangements – from independent contractors to temporary employees to workers holding multiple jobs at the same time."
The information may one day form the basis for future legislative or regulatory action. Perez notes "the information we get from this survey will help the department do something that’s essential to smart policymaking and smart business: understanding the past and the present so that we can prepare for the future."
Focus on the gig economy is clearly growing. Seth Harris and Alan Krueger, former Deputy Labor Secretary and former Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, respectively, released a discussion paper last month on the online gig economy. Their paper, A Proposal for Modernizing Labor Laws for Twenty-First-Century Work: The “Independent Worker”, proposes a new legal category, "independent workers," to classify workers "who occupy the gray area between employees and independent contractors."
Some lawmakers at the federal level are also drawing attention to this issue. Notably, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who has been particularly outspoken on this topic, applauded the DOL's announcement. In a statement, Warner said:
The last time the Contingent Worker Supplement was conducted was more than a decade ago. Since then, new technologies and on-demand platforms have allowed people to monetize their time, skills, cars and spare rooms in ways that have fundamentally challenged the 20th century social contract. If we are going to make this 21st century economy work better for more people while encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, it is crucial that we have better, more accurate data about who and how workers are participating in the on-demand economy. In the absence of designated congressional funds for the purpose, I'm pleased that Secretary Perez and the Department of Labor are working with the Census Bureau to prioritize the collection of more reliable data on this segment of the workforce.
How the DOL will ultimately use this information remains to be seen. However, this topic is likely to garner the attention of policymakers in the year ahead.