The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown employment into chaos. More than 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment during the first week of April, causing the unemployment rate to soar from its rate of just 3.5% in February.
But this spike in unemployment may not reflect a large portion of workers who work for themselves: gig workers. As restrictions, quarantines, and business closures dramatically shift day-to-day life in America, the gig economy is working overtime to keep up.
Who are Gig Workers?
The gig economy consists of non-traditional gig workers who earn income from activities outside of traditional, long-term employer-employee relationships. According to the Gig Economy Data Hub, “Work tends to be temporary or project-based; workers are hired to complete a particular task or for a certain period of time.”
More than 25% of American workers participate in the gig economy to some extent, though not all rely on their gigs as their sole source of income. The type of work performed through the gig economy occurs in nearly every industry, from healthcare to marketing to construction.
Most recently, the rise in the gig economy is the result of tech platforms like Instacart, Uber, Lyft, and other platforms that connect workers with customers in some unique way.
Americans Rely on Some Gig Workers More Than Ever Amid Pandemic
With many states under lockdown and shelter-in-place orders, a simple trip to the grocery store has become a major undertaking. Now gig workers like Instacart grocery shoppers and GrubHub delivery workers are being heralded as essential household heroes for people who can’t leave their homes.
Yet, despite this appreciation, gig workers are vulnerable. Many don’t qualify for unemployment benefits since they don’t pay into the unemployment system like a regular salaried employee would. “Both the length of this crisis and the individual situations of these workers could leave them disproportionately exposed,” explained Phil Sletten, policy analyst at the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.
The Contradiction Between “Household Heroes” and Their Employee Benefits
Our general reliance and appreciation of gig workers stands in stark contrast to the lack of protections that gig workers typically receive from their employers. The majority of gig workers piece together their income from running “gigs” without any traditional employer benefits. This means they don’t receive health care, sick leave, or workers’ compensation. Those benefits seem like luxuries, and they must come out of their own pockets.
As Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, explains, “There’s a lot of commonality between someone who’s driving for Uber and someone who’s working as a tutor, or a subcontracted worker who’s providing cleaning services for Google. Those workers have slightly different work arrangements, but their inability to access benefits is very similar.”
Gig Workers Collective Seeks to Protect Workers
Many gig workers now face a choice: protect themselves from the pandemic and lose their income, or continue making money and risk their health.
Gig Workers Collective formed in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on gig workers. Now, as a pending 501(c)(3) organization, Gig Workers Collective seeks to provide the support gig workers typically don’t have “This non-profit group will bring the time, resources, and focus to fight for fair pay and better treatment for all gig economy workers, from Instacart Shoppers to Lyft Drivers,” its website states.
As the gig economy continues to grow, the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic may give gig workers the voice they never had before.