Up until a few years ago, telling someone you had a ‘gig’ carried a bit of cache. Wow … you signed to play rock music at a big venue. That was a gig. Merriam-Webster confirms, saying a gig is a job usually for a specified time, especially an entertainer’s engagement.
Well, times have changed. A significant segment of the population now works gigs, some as short as a few hours, and all for varied employers. This emerging trend is known as the ‘gig economy.’ And, it conveys no prestige or perks.
Pew Research says that one in four Americans now earn money from the digital platform economy. These are temporary assignments offered on the internet at sites like Snag Work, which prescreens applicants and then allows them to search their postings for gigs.
What’s driving this? Chronic underemployment is forcing some Americans to get work on a catch-as-catch-can basis. It may be a way to bring in a few extra dollars to supplement the monthly budget for those who already have a dependable source of income. But, for many it’s a patchwork of unreliable jobs that hold no promise of continued or full-time employment.
Those who work gigs are generally among the growing segment of the population, the have-nots, who are victim to circumstances that continually keep them on an unequal footing with the haves. Gigs typically pay between $10 and $15 per hour for such tasks as: cleaning, dish washing, making home repairs, prepping food, and offering ride-share services. Jobs offered are most prevalent in retail settings, restaurants, and in the hospitality industry.
Sixteen percent of gig workers are under age 30, while an additional 10 percent are age 30-45. Blacks and Latinos are twice as likely (or more) to seek/accept gig work. Nearly one in three gig workers says that this employment arrangement is essential for them to meet their basic needs.
This approach to employment leaves the unemployed and underemployed continually searching for the next and enough gigs to support themselves and their families. It’s a short-term answer for anyone who needs cash, but it carries a significant downside. Workers have no predictable schedule or income, little chance for advancement, no benefits, no tax withholding, and most importantly no labor protections available to full-time employees
Labor economists and law professors say the gig system raises concerns for some of the most vulnerable workers. Beyond tending to trap low-income workers in a never-ending cycle of unreliable work, it does away with protections that full-time employees enjoy under employment law, things such as minimum wages, overtime pay, the right to unionize, and the right to FMLA time off.
According to Erin Johansson, research director, Jobs with Justice, the gig economy has implications for existing full-time employees, too. “This is a very problematic trend that has a downward pull on employer standards. Who’s going to stand up and speak [for instance] about sexual harassment if they feel like they’re just going to be replaced by a gig worker who has no rights?”
This is just part of a larger story: wealth for a few, a shrinking middle class, and a growing segment that just gets along. In testimony before the US Senate, Thea Lee, representing the Economic Policy Institute, sums it up well. “This is the first generation of Americans whose standard of living, on average, is unlikely to exceed that of their parents, if current trends continue. Instead, too many find themselves either treading water or losing ground financially, crushed by the cumulative weight of growing wealth and income disparities.”