The gig economy gets lauded for letting millions of Americans set their own hours and choose their work assignments as freelancers and independent contractors. But the gig economy â which includes people from Uber drivers to dog walkers to consultants â gets low marks for letting them earn a decent living and receive benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans.
The pay and benefits problems, however, are slowly starting to shrink, according to experts at a gig economy workshop held by The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. last week.
Improvements for Pay and Benefits for Gig Workers
âI do see some pathways. There are some people showing it can be done,â Maureen Conway, The Aspen Instituteâs vice president for policy programs and executive director of its economic opportunities program, told me in an interview after the event.
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Conway, who hosted the panel (The Rise of Gig Work: Creating Flexibility and Stability for a New Era), was quick to add a word of caution, however. âWe do many events like this one featuring companies we think are leading, in terms of their practices. Unfortunately, many companies are not following.â The gig economy, Conway added, is âin some ways emblematic of the issues of instability in work in America today.â
But The Aspen Instituteâs panelists described a few glimmers for gig workers:
States and Governments
Libby Reder, senior fellow with The Aspen Instituteâs Future of Work Initiative, said a few state and local governments, like ones in Washington state and New York, are trying to improve gig worker pay and benefits.
Washington state, Reder said, is attempting to come up with âa whole new modelâ through legislation that would let gig platforms contribute to benefits funds for gig workers and set governance requirements for administrators. Last week, a national teleconference organized by the labor advocacy group Working Washington instituted a campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for gig workers.
While a patchwork of state regulations might be less preferable than federal rules, Reder said, âstates are laboratories of our democracy. If we donât try a few things out there, we wonât be able to think about a comprehensive solution.â
Benefits for House Cleaners
Also, she noted, the National Domestic Workers Alliance last year launched a novel benefit program called Alia to help house cleaners. It won The Workers Lab 2018 Innovation Fund award.
âEmployers of the house cleaners can pay into a benefits fund (usually $5 per cleaning) for the cleaners to draw paid time off and, in some cases, insurance coverage,â said Reder. Cleaners in California and New York can access accident insurance, critical illness insurance, life insurance or disability insurance, but not general health insurance.
House cleaners can receive Alia contributions from multiple employers or clients and take the Alia Benefits Credits with them when they leave a job or client, making them portable. Alia plans to add insurance options in other states in coming months and to adjust the product for nannies and caregivers.
A Points Program to Accrue Benefits
Joshua Karam, co-founder and CEO of Hyr gig platform for the restaurant and hospitality industry, noted that his workers earn good money â âjust shy of $20 an hour, on average.â Also, he noted, Hyrâs U Points program lets its gig workers choose where to allocate their points â accruing them for paid time off, health or dental insurance or retirement savings.
So far, Hyr is available in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles; Boston, Chicago, Toronto and other Canadian markets will be added soon.
Helping Gig Workers Manage Taxes
And Jake Biscoglio, vice president of strategic growth initiatives/new market development at Prudential Financial, talked about the tool â Covered 1099 â his firm launched two weeks ago to make it easier for gig workers to save for, and pay, their taxes.
âWe found a main pain point for gig workers was saving for taxes â the awareness that it needs to be done, the discipline to do it and the time off between gigs,â said Biscoglio. âCovered 1099 automates the process as you get income, so money goes into the account to pay for the taxes.â
Covered 1099 replicates the traditional employeesâ W-2 experience for independent workers whose earnings show up on 1099 forms. Its âTax Estimatorâ lets gig workers set aside money the tool believes will be due for taxes and then use that cash to pay quarterly estimated taxes. (Covered 1099 is not permitted for New York state residents.)
The âtaxation piece is important, because gig workers are responsible to file their taxes and many are used to the withholding that comes with W-2 jobs,â said Karam. âThey donât know what they donât know.â
The Struggle for Policymakers
Reder noted that policymakers are âstrugglingâ to close the gap between laws and regulations regarding pay and benefits for traditional workers and new ones needed for âthe business models we see todayâ of gig-economy platforms and their independent contractors.
And Conway told me she didnât see anything coming out of Washington in the year ahead to help gig workersâ pay or benefits âbecause weâre fairly gridlocked.â
Gig Work: Still Challenging
Despite the new and promising ideas described at The Aspen Institute panel, gig work remains challenging for many. A 2017 study from the Freelancers Union and the gig platform Upwork found that 63% of freelancers dipped into their savings once a month.
Panelist Lyndsey Cameron, a researcher who has interviewed ride-sharing gig workers and been one for about three years, said: âItâs tough to earn daily bread. But [being a driver] gave me a lot of flexibility.â
In a recent Fast Company article on the gig economy, gig drivers lamented that they have been earning less money from their work lately as companies hiring them have tried to cut costs. One Instacart driver said he averaged nearly $20 an hour before November, but in January, was averaging well under $15 an hour. And, the article noted, about 1,600 Instacart drivers have signed a petition complaining about their 30 to 40% pay declines.
For many drivers at companies like Uber and Lyft, Cameron said, âthe money they earn is supplemental income, but itâs not to go to Hawaii. Itâs to buy medicine and pay utility bills.â
Gig Workers: Empowered or Exploited?
Cameron said her research found that whether gig workers feel empowered or exploited depends on their backgrounds.
âIf youâre a first-generation immigrant expecting to work your way up and had done low-paid, low-skill work before, youâre more likely to feel empowered,â she said. âThe people who feel more exploited are ones who had been laid off from manufacturing or pink-collar jobs and wanted to stop their downward social mobility.â
But, Cameron said, âthe gig economy is a really good thing for workers who are fifty-plus.â In fact, she noted, she was drawn to her gig research because her mother lost a job in her 50s and then did gig work for about six years.
Where the Gig Economy Is Headed: People 45+
Angela Heath, an audience member who recently led the online Gig Worker Summit and is CEO and Gig Income Guru for consultant TKC Incorporated, told me she believes people 45+ âare where the gig economy is headed.â
And, she noted, the gig economy encompasses far, far more than Uber drivers. âThereâs a continuum of gig platforms, including some for the nationâs top talent,â such as consultants, said Heath, author of Do the Hustle Without the Hassle. âWe found at our summit that many of these gig workers didnât know how to build their businesses.â
Heath plans to offer another online gig summit â GigCon â for all types of gig workers later this year.