Gig Work is Not a Jobs Safety Net

Ideas and Issues
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Pearl River     If service work had been the equivalent of a jobs’ “safety net” for workers in many cities and towns in the past, the only replacement available would seem to be “gig” work.  What kind of safety net for the working class would that be?

I talked recently to the well-known and highly regarded Professor Juliet Schor of Boston College.  Professor Schor is a sociologist and economist and that powerful combination has made her an authority on work.  She authored the best-selling Overworked American in the 1990’s and has followed that up with one book after another developing similar themes.  Our conversation focused on a new volume, After the Gig:  How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked, that was based on a collaborative effort with colleagues over a number of years of research.  Spoiler alert:  don’t get your hopes up for gig work as much of a safety net.

Schor and her team found a sharp divide among workers who participated in gig work between what they called “supplemental earners” as opposed to “dependent earners.”  Supplementals liked the gigs, because they saw their extra effort renting out a room through Airbnb or jumping into a car to give people rides during surges on Uber or Lyft as extra money they could save or splurge, making it worth whatever time and effort they expended.  In short, the gigs supplemented their regular jobs.  On the other hand, dependents were precisely that:  dependent on the gigs for a living.  There was no joy in Mudville from these workers.  Many of them reported working more hours for less money. No matter how many platforms they plied , it still didn’t add up to a real living.  When Schor’s team talked to them they also had other complaints about diminished status as servants and recognition of underlying costs in accessing the gigs, like having a modern enough car to qualify for Uber, in addition to low pay versus hours worked.

They also found that an increasing number of gig workers were dependents rather than supplementals.  The disparity in returns on the work were actually increasing the inequality gap in America, rather than decreasing it as the app companies often claimed.  To the heart of my question on whether gig work is the “new” last resort, safety net job for many workers, they found a significant majority of workers in the gig economy were college educated with degrees, which hardly argues that this is a secure haven for the working class.  Add their findings on racial discrimination in gig work, and it’s even less attractive.

Whether supplemental or dependent, the pandemic depression has hammered Airbnb as tourism decreased, and ride sharing on Uber and Lyft also tanked, except for making food deliveries.  Gigs went down as fast, if not faster, than service work in this pandemic.

Gigs are not waiting tables, but the pay and hours may be worse.  One thing is clear, gigs are not a job safety net, they are simply a disappointing waystation in an accelerating economic disaster for workers.