Wednesday, October 17, 2018

How Wrong Are the Official Counts of Gig Work?

Eyebrows were raised a few months ago when the Bureau of Labor Statistics Contingent Worker Supplement revealed no growth in the alternative workforce between 2005 (the last time the survey was taken) and 2017, despite the apparent growth of the gig economy. Surprise turned to dismay when the Bureau admitted its failure to successfully measure "electronically mediated employment"— or gig work arranged and paid for through online platforms.

Could it be that the Bureau of Labor Statistics' effort to measure a growing and vital segment of the workforce is way off track? The answer is yes. Although study after study after study finds a substantial percentage of Americans participating in the gig economy, these workers are eluding the government's official efforts to measure them.

There's a reason for this. The employment questions asked by the monthly Current Population Survey, which is the official measure of the labor force, do not capture informal work activity. This is the finding of a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Katharine G. Abraham of the University of Maryland and Ashley Amaya of RTI International.

The Current Population Survey asks respondents whether they did any work for 'pay' or 'profit' during the survey reference week. It also asks whether respondents have more than one 'job' or 'business.' Abraham and Amaya have a problem with these questions, which were formulated years ago when the labor force was less complex: "It is not clear...that respondents are likely to think of money earned through informal work activity as either 'pay' or 'profit' or to consider such activity to be a 'job' or 'business.'" To test this hypothesis, they surveyed Mechanical Turk (Amazon's crowdsourcing platform) participants and asked respondents not only the standard CPS employment questions but also additional questions to probe for informal work activity.

What a difference those additional questions made. Fully 22 percent of respondents had engaged in additional work activity in the past week that would have been missed by the CPS. Among those identified by the CPS questions as having no work activity in the past week, 23.5 percent had engaged in informal paid work. Among those identified by the CPS as having one job in the past week, 23.3 percent were engaging in informal work as well. Among those the CPS identified as having two jobs, an additional 15.9 percent also performed informal paid work on top of their busy schedules. Those who engaged in informal work in the past week devoted a substantial 8.2 hours, on average, to the activity.

The researchers admit that their Mechanical Turk sample is not representative of the U.S. population as a whole. But, they say, their findings "provide important evidence about the sensitivity of survey estimates to asking more probing questions." It's too late for this insight to make a difference in the long-awaited (12 years!) 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement, which took "as its starting point the employment reported in response to the standard CPS questions." Let's hope the Bureau of Labor Statistics will take these findings seriously and field a better survey of the gig workforce—ASAP.

Source: National Bureau of Economic Research, Probing for Informal Work Activity, Working Paper 24880 ($5)

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