To start, what new challenges and opportunities does the gig economy entail for employees?
On one level, the rising shared economy simply means more options and a broader horizon for employees. Increasingly, the market supports freelance and contract employees who join the on-demand market by choice rather than in response to crisis or the loss of a traditional job. Gone are the days when “self-employed” was a thinly veiled term for unemployment. Increasingly, freelance work and self-employment are associated with greater freedom, flexibility, options, new possibilities, and a safety cushion.
The barriers to being a freelance professional…are going away.
However, for some employees gig work can also mean inconsistent income, less stability, greater incurred costs (gas, health insurance and work supplies) and the absence of protections generally afforded to W-2 employees. The gray areas and challenges of the gig economy are hotly debated right now, both in terms of employee classification and regulations particularly surrounding the largest hubs of on-demand employment (like Airbnb and Uber).
For employees, flexibility is one of the biggest draws of on-demand work. The availability and prevalence of freelance opportunities at the tips of employees’ fingers reveals options in flexibility that a few years ago were minimal in middle America. It’s now possible to work from home while supporting younger children, pursue a passion project part time while bringing in enough cash to pay the bills, and take as much time off to travel as a given situation allows. In a study of 601 Uber driver-partners, the drivers were asked the following question: “If both were available to you, at this point in your life, would you rather have a steady 9-to-5 job with some benefits and a set salary or a job where you choose your own schedule and be your own boss?” 73 percent of the drivers chose flexibility over a traditional job.
With low barriers to entry and endless opportunities for freelance employment (and more popping up daily) literally at their fingertips, employees’ biggest hurdles to joining the on-demand workforce is often determining which freelance employment opportunities are the best fit for their lifestyle, skillset, and time. What is the cost-benefit analysis for a freelancer’s particular situation, and what assets does he or she have to leverage? A vehicle: Lyft or Uber are options. An extra room: Airbnb. Great organizational abilities and some technical skills: Zirtual. The list is growing daily.
Anyone who wants to can do microtasks, no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status
Employees can take inventory of their interests and skills (whether or not they have a degree to prove them) and specialize in and become an expert at the freelance opportunities that appeal to them and best complement their skill sets and assets.
Gone are the days of a mad scramble to find a job-any job-if traditional employment falls through. Now employees have higher quality, varied options for stop-gap employment (that may well turn into a long-term situation by choice for many). Rising options for on-demand, gig-style employment can take some of the stress out of job searching, by giving employees a sustainable cushion of income and allowing them to take their time finding the best fit for new employment.
The benefit of on-demand platforms that support low barriers to entry comes with an inherent drawback for employees: low barriers to exit. Any given source of contract work can dry up quickly, in some cases because of negative reviews of a freelancer’s performance (especially reviews that are publically available, in apps like Uber and Airbnb), and most sources of freelance work depend on the sometimes arbitrary satisfaction of a client.
As Joseph G. Davis, Professor of Information Services and Systems at University of Sydney, says of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, “Data-driven algorithms for continuous monitoring of worker performance and reputation enable requesters to pick and choose the workers. They also have the unilateral right to reject all or part of the work completed by a worker without payment, which adds to the pressure on workers.”
Lilly Irani, a developer who helped create Turkopticon, a forum that helps Amazon’s Mechanical Turk users identify and avoid shady employers said, “If you have a 99.8 percent approval rating and then you work for some jack-wagon who rejects 500 of your HITs, you’re toast. Because for every rejection, you have to get 100 HITs that are approved to get your rating back up. Do you know how long that takes? It can take months; it can take years.”
There’s also the ever-present possibility of an app going out of business in response to litigation or funding issues, or a sudden lack of demand caused by new competitors in the market or other economic factors.
Contractors may find that costs like health insurance and other work-related expenses have a significant impact on their net take-home pay. The cost-benefit analysis might look good at first — and less rosy when all costs have been accounted for. While W-2 employees are reimbursed for work-related costs, like gas. While some of these out-of-pocket costs can be written off come tax time, the day-to-day expenses can add up.
Another significant – and sometimes unanticipated – cost for freelancers is employment taxes. Employers aren’t required to pay this tax for contractors. And at close to 15 percent, this cost alone can take a sizeable amount out of a paycheck.
Contract work typically means that most of the safeguards available to W-2 employees are absent in the on-demand dynamic. Severance pay, disability leave, PTO, sick days, and workers comp are just a few of the protections and benefits afforded to full- and part-time employees but not contractors. It’s also far easier for employers to terminate a relationship with a freelancer as opposed to a full- or part-time employee.
While contractors are technically allowed to unionize, they aren’t afforded the same legal protections as W-2 employees. Employers aren’t required to negotiate with contractors on contract terms, and they are freely allowed to take action against contractors who go on strike. Wages can be changed without notice, and minimum wage laws do not apply.
While contract work carries greater risk than traditional employment in ways (most notably in the lack of employer-subsidized benefits and unpredictability of work), the benefits of independence and options are compelling enough that the number of employees who either embrace the gig economy full-time or moonlight to supplement traditional employment are growing–and rapidly. As the numbers increase, bolstered by new options in cloud-based “employers,” understanding the implications and changing landscape for employees, managers and business owners alike will be key.