In some neighborhoods in our region — and near many schools — young people face the threat of gun violence on a daily basis.
The growing gig economy has made contract workers out of everyone from rideshare drivers and journalists to adjunct professors and government employees. The flexibility of these gigs can be ideal for some workers. But without full-time work, many part-time and temp workers face an uncertain future without employee benefits and consistent pay.
So, how did this move toward temporary labor begin in the first place?
In his new book “Temp,” Louis Hyman makes the case that the traditional American workplace has unraveled and offers guidance on how to fix it. Kojo sits down with Hyman and discusses the landscape for our regional workforce.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Louis Hyman Professor, School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University; Author, "Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary"
- Jeannette Chapman Deputy Director and Senior Research Associate, George Mason University's Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region’s Economic Future
- Mathieu Stevenson Chief Marketing Officer, Snagajob
- Katie Wells Geographer and Postdoctoral Fellow, Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative
Excerpt from "Temp"
“Americans cannot rely on just one job anymore, certainly not over a lifetime and — for the working poor — frequently not even at one time. Though day laborers, office temps, and management consultants — as well as contract assemblers, Craigslist freelancers, adjunct professors, Uber drivers, Blackwater mercenaries and every other kind of worker filing an IRS form 1099 — span the income ranks, what they do have in common is what we all have in common in this post-1970s economy: They are temporary.”
KOJO NNAMDIYou've tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. The growing gig economy, it has made contract workers out of everyone from rideshare drivers and journalists to adjunct professors and government employees. The flexibility of these gigs can be ideal for some, but many part-timers and temps face an uncertain future without employee benefits and job security.
KOJO NNAMDISo, where did all the good, secure jobs go. In his book "Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary,” Louis Hyman explains the dramatic change in the American workplace. Louis Hyman joins us now from studios at Cornell. He's a professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He's the author of "Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary.” Louis Hyman, thank you for joining us.
LOUIS HYMANWell, thank you for having me. So glad to talk with you.
NNAMDILouis Hyman, briefly, how did we get here? When did temp labor and flexible corporations first emerge and why?
HYMANIt's a very curious truth that this kind of work was invented in the midst of the post-war security, exactly the time when our corporations and our laws and everything else seemed to be aligned to create job security. There began to be alternatives that were invented through management consulting, temporary workers and migrant laborers.
NNAMDIIn your book you write that 1935 to 1970 is seen as a time of stability in the American workforce. What happened to create that decade's long stability?
HYMANWell, the story begins in the 1930s when workers began to organize in new ways. So, in the face of the industrial economy, in the face of the great depression, you start to see new kinds of worker organizations, the CIO. And this is when we begin to turn industrial labor from a place where you can lose an arm and be impoverished into the kinds of secure jobs that we are so nostalgic for these days.
NNAMDILouis Hyman, you emphasize in the book “Temp” that we should not romanticize the post-war period and its associated protections. Indeed, job security was not something that was afforded to all people and still is not. Who's left out of the American dream?
HYMANYes, it's important to remember that the people, who were guaranteed secure work were white men. And this kind of line between who was deemed deserving of secure work and those who were not is crucial to understanding the rise of the temporary workforce. So, for people of color, for women, for people who were not citizens, this kind of temporary work was invented through a new kind of experiences that they had through the post-war.
HYMANAnd it's only after 1970 when that world becomes to the foreground, begins to displace the world of white men in their factories and offices. And we start to see a long line of de-industrialization followed by downsizing followed by today's gig economy. And this is the story not just of excluding and including, but also the reorganization of the American corporation to take advantage of these people who didn't have security as well.
NNAMDIYou say the Fair Labor Standards Act specifically left out agricultural workers. The union protections were ultimately exclusionary, and it's that division that allows for the rise of temporary labor.
HYMANYes. So, when we have these rises, this rising worker organizations in the 1930s, eventually a peace is made first in laws and then in eventually in the contracts between the unions and the big corporations well. These laws intentionally excluded the places where people of color worked, where women worked. So, domestic workers agricultural workers were excluded from these kinds of protections, and it's not a coincidence.
NNAMDIHow has technology changed how we work? What's happened in the past two decades?
HYMANSo, this is an important issue, because when we talk about technology it's almost as if we can't do anything about it. It becomes inevitable how our work lives will transform. But we also know that all these changes began long before the smart phone, certainly before Uber. And when we talk about the gig economy we are often talking about this kind of technological determinism. And in the book, I write this history to really emphasize the choices that we have over our organizations. And so, technology of course is important, but technology solves for existing business problems. Technology doesn't just appear out of nowhere and suddenly change the way we live. It is implemented in particular ways with problems that we already have.
HYMANAnd so throughout the book I talk a lot about the history of technology, how temps were used to, in the 1960s, to migrate data from paper to bits, but these temps were women, and they were used in the middle of the night and they weren't considered part of the workforce. And it's this business problem of migration, not the technology itself that really drives corporations to discover this temporary workforce.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Louis Hyman. He's a professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and author of the book “Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary.” We asked temp, contract, freelance and part-time workers to answer a survey earlier this month and we'll be playing some of the responses they shared throughout the show. Here's what one temp told us.
KATYHi, my name is Katy and I've been working as a temp since October last year. I've mainly done administrative work like answering phones, data entry and sorting mail. I was a little embarrassed about temping at first, because I have two degrees and somehow don't have a job related to them. And I won't lie. When I started temping I felt like I was obsessed with budgeting, because I wasn't sure if I was going to get enough hours a month to pay for rent and everything else.
KATYBut being a temp has worked out surprisingly well for my emotional and mental well-being. I used to have this huge, weighty fear of underperforming and letting people down or being stuck in a job that I just didn't like forever. But with temp work, I got to try a lot of different things I might not have even thought of trying before and people really appreciate the work that I do, because I'm helping them out when they're in a pinch.
NNAMDILouis Hyman, these terms, temp, contract, freelance, part-time, they get thrown together quite a bit. Can you talk about the definition and differences among them?
HYMANThis is a very contentious issue among labor sociologists, who want to have a clean definition. In the book, I talk about temps as any of a range of jobs that have only a loose connection to a workplace, to a corporation. And I think for me, that's what the big transformation is. How did we go from being very tightly connected between employer and employee to a world where in so many ways, you know, whether you're a high-paid consultant or a mildly paid temp or an underpaid gig worker, you don't have the same kind of connection to the workplace. And it's that kind of transformation that I think is so important.
HYMANAnd the feeling of reciprocity, whether or not you're going to get enough hours, as this person just said in the interview, you know, are we going to get enough hours? Are we going to get paid enough? That kind of anxiety about our paychecks is really everywhere these days, whether you're a temp or a perm.
NNAMDIHere's Paul in Alexandria, Virginia. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULGood afternoon, Kojo. Paul Mazuko (sp?), permanent tourist in D.C. I'm in Alexandria and I'm a tour guide and today during winter I get to be a substitute teacher and get two hours off, because of snow and it really is a hand in mouth kind of life sometimes. It's at the whim of sometimes tourists cancel. Sometimes it's not as -- there are no benefits, things like that. So, that's how my life is.
NNAMDIIt's tough making ends meet for you, Paul?
PAULIt's a challenge. I'm doing pretty well when I do pretty well, but fortunately I'm married to a woman allows me to get on her health insurance, for example. You know, I'm 61 and I love touring. I love showing people D.C., Alexandria, etcetera, but that's the reality of it is I have to work as a temp during -- I mean a substitute teacher during the winter. And she calls herself a tour season widow when it's on.
NNAMDIPaul, thank you very much for sharing that story with us. Here is a bit more of what we heard from other listeners.
JEAN PIERRE BOVIHi, my name is Jean Pierre Bovi. I'm a freelance art director, who works in advertising and marketing. I've been a freelancer here in the District for about a year and a half, and I would say mentally freelance is challenging. It's kind of like a double edged sword. You know, the pros are I get to manage myself. I don't have to inundate myself with office politics. I'd say I'm way more productive when I work from home without the hustle and bustle of an office in my ears. And you know, I can take a shower at 11:30 if I want.
JEAN PIERRE BOVIThe cons are missing that feeling of connection of a work family, working with good people to make good work. And you know, sometimes the solitude can be overwhelming, and you know, really having to make an effort to network. If you're not good at it, it's a challenge.
JAMIE BABCOCKMy name is Jamie Babcock, and I worked as an adjunct English instructor for 15 years at seven different universities. Part of the reason why I worked at seven different universities is because I quickly realized that most universities don't like to pay their adjunct faculty for a full course load, because that means providing insurance benefits. And therefore, I'd have to work at multiple universities just to kind of make ends meet and pay for insurance out of pocket.
NNAMDIWell, that's hearing from a few of our listeners. Louis Hyman, we do know as a fact that there's currently more wealth concentrated at the top in a few hands today than at any time since the gilded age, but can we say there's cause and effect there related to how we work?
HYMANI think that it's impossible not to think that, that this inequality that we are living through is about the way in which corporations have foresworn any kind of obligation to their workforces. And you can hear it in the stories that you just heard, people who are very skilled, people who are very motivated still struggling to make ends meet. But while we talk so much about income inequality, we talk less about income volatility, which is also what we're hearing in the stories we just heard.
HYMANSo, a study came out a few years ago by JP Morgan that found a little over half of median households, so just average people, exactly average by definition people, a little over half of them had month-to-month fluctuations in their income of 30 percent. Just imagine trying to budget or pay your bills if you didn't know whether your income was going to go up or down 30 percent every month. And this isn't because people are switching jobs. It's mostly due to the changing hours they get within a job.
HYMANSo, there's this idea that there are a bunch of bad jobs like Uber at the bottom of the economy, but really this kind of instability has permeated really a lot of the workforce. And it is something that we aren't talking enough about, the connection between the anxiety we all feel these days and the changing nature of work.
NNAMDIWe don't want to be too hard on the gig economy, Louis, because millions of people do choose this kind of work precisely for its flexibility. So, what are some of the good things about our growing gig economy.
HYMANAbsolutely. And in the book I definitely do not demonize the gig economy. There are many opportunities for people to be freed from the office, to be freed from the factory, to fill out their time as they need it. And I think that it's the same old question of choice and necessity that you get in any kind of job. You know, if you feel you are driven to do it, you have no alternative, it's not a wonderful experience. You feel unfulfilled human.
HYMANBut if it's something that is affirming to you, it makes you feel connected to the world and productive and it's paid enough, well that feels wonderful. And so, you see the same range of experiences within the gig economy as you do in the normal labor market. And for those who choose to do it and are making enough money, which is millions of people. About a third of the workforce in America participates in some way in this freelance economy. It's just a wonderful experience.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Louis Hyman, thank you so much for joining us.
HYMANA real pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDILouis Hyman is a professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He's the author of the book “Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary.” I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the gig economy focusing now on how it operates locally and the effect that it has. Joining me in studio is Katie Wells. She's a geographer and a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University. She's been researching the work lives of Uber drivers in Washington D.C. Katie Wells, thank you for joining us.
KATIE WELLSThank you.
NNAMDIMathieu Stevenson is Chief Marketing Officer for Snagajob. Mathieu, thank you for joining us.
MATHIEU STEVENSONThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Jeannette Chapman is Deputy Director and Senior Research Associate at George Mason University's Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region's Economic Future. Jeannette, good to see you again.
JEANNETTE CHAPMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJeannette, when we refer to gig and independent workers locally, who are we talking about?
CHAPMANThere's a lot of variety in this workforce, as Louis already alluded to. And so, one of the challenges for researchers in this field is defining, who exactly we're talking about and how we're measuring it. And at a local level, doing so is even more difficult than trying to do so at a national level. And so, what we end up doing is creating sets of data pulling from different sources to try to figure out exactly how to measure these workers and what they are doing.
CHAPMANBut broadly speaking, when we think of the gig economy, we're talking about any kind of labor activity that isn't a wage and salary job. And so, in some cases temporary work might actually refer to part-time jobs that are associated with the firm or maybe temps, who come in but get a salary from a specific temp agency. We generally exclude them from the gig economy, this kind of work, when we're trying to collect the data, mainly, because they're counted on the normal wage and salary payroll data that we get every month.
NNAMDISo, what do we know about how workers in our region are being affected? Is the gig economy truly on the rise?
CHAPMANIt has risen exponentially, both in the Washington region and nationally over the last say 10 or 15 years, depending on how much data you get. The trick is measuring not necessarily the baseline level of activity but what the magnitude of that activity means, because oftentimes this isn't the same order of magnitude as a full-time job. It's five hours here, three hours there. And so, the overall economic value of that activity is a little bit harder to nail down.
NNAMDIMathieu, you're the Chief Marketing Officer for the Arlington-based company Snagajob, which offers a more traditional online job board for hourly workers ala Monster.com, but there's also Snag Work, which allows individuals to sign up for shifts. So, tell us how does Snag Work work?
STEVENSONSure. Yeah, and I think it's representative of this shift in the gig economy. In my mind, there's sort of three phases of gig. The first, if you think about it historically, was a lot of virtual services, i.e., freelance writers and designers. The second phase, which is I think what people typically associate with gig, which is the Ubers, Airbnbs and Home Aways where I used to work, right, so where you have a physical asset. And the last, which is sort of the location-based gigification of the economy.
STEVENSONAnd so, that's where Snag Work comes into play. And I think we've realized that there are workers who have full and part-time jobs who would like to be able to supplement their income. They're hourly workers today. They don't necessarily have the means to be able to A, afford a car or let alone have a car that qualifies for Uber. And so, this is a way for them to use their skill set. So, they can pick up an on-demand shift at a different restaurant. They can pick it up at a different warehouse if they do that or a different hotel. So, there are a variety of ways that they can use their skill set to again supplement their income or, as other folks have alluded to, enjoy the flexibility that does come with gig.
NNAMDISnag Work is now operating in D.C. and Richmond. Are there plans to expand farther?
STEVENSONThere are. So, we plan to expand to five additional cities this year starting with Charlotte in May.
NNAMDIWho benefits from a platform like Snag and what exactly are those benefits?
STEVENSONI think it's both workers and employers. On the worker side, again it's this ability to say the nature of work has changed and I should be able to have both a full or part-time job, but also pick up a shift in my area of expertise as needed. And then for the employers, the pain point that it solves is if you have a large hourly workforce, you've typically run into issues around scheduling and no shows. And so, this is an ability if you're unable to fill a shift with somebody within your organization to pull from a different pool of workers.
NNAMDIHere now is Sherry in Bethesda, Maryland. Sherry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHERRYHi. Yes, I have been a gig worker my entire my adult life. I started as a journalist. And as soon as I graduated in the 90s from college, I was actually going to work for a magazine and pretty much all the magazines and newspapers fired all their staffs and rehired them as contractors and would pay them by the hour or by the word. And I did a number of clients like that for writing. When I got into acting and modeling, it was the same kind of situation. I got into doing birthday parties, so I had to make sure I didn't have to do anything smarmy. So, I was working on an hourly for those types of things.
SHERRYAnd even now as I become a real estate agent, I still feel like a gig worker, and I keep my corporate event work so that I can still do some creative things and always know that I have a more consistent, what you want to call it, pay. I think the thing I've always struggled with has been I've tended to work seven days a week, or six and a half as I call it. And that I really worry a lot about making sure that I'm paying the right amount of money for my medical insurance. And I never know if I'm making the right decision for how to secure the right medical coverage for myself. Any thoughts on that?
NNAMDII'm glad you've raised that issue. Jeannette?
CHAPMANSo, I think that's a tricky nut to crack and it will depend upon all of the same things that we, the wage and salary workers, look at when they pick an insurance plan. And unfortunately, I'm not an expert on how much insurance people need, so. There are services, though, that I think are starting up now to provide more HR type backup for gig economy workers. And although I'm blanking on the names of some of them, they're starting to become a little bit more common exactly, because of the reasons that you talked about. It's very difficult to nail down exactly what you need.
NNAMDIJoining us in the studio of course is Katie Wells. Katie, I mentioned earlier, is a geographer and postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University. She has been researching the work lives of Uber drivers in Washington D.C. Katie, what questions were you looking to answer going into this study and what have you uncovered so far?
WELLSWe knew that ride hailing services were prospering in the region. What we didn't know was what was happening to their drivers, what was their workplace like and what was happening to their household budgets. What we found was that drivers were encouraged to take on significant financial risks and often ended up in debt. We call this a debt-to-work pipeline. We also found that the Uber workplace involved this very slippery wage. It was difficult to set, difficult to track set of earnings and expenses. And so, in the end, the Uber workplace more resembled a casino than the retail and restaurant industries where a lot of the workers that we interviewed had been coming from.
NNAMDIYou've mentioned that many Uber drivers have no idea how much they're making. How is that?
WELLSI know. (laugh) So, we sat down with drivers. They weren't sure what to say. I remember one driver, Susanna, was a 53-year-old Uber driver, and we asked her about her weekly pay. She said, “It's really hard to talk about that, because it changes every time they change the rules." In the six years that Uber's been operating in D.C., it's reduced its base rate a number of times and raised the commission it takes. Harry Campbell, a top blogger of the ride hail industry, estimates that drivers need 41 pieces of information to figure out their hourly wage.
STEVENSONI was just going to say. I think the analog for Uber drivers is actually, if you think long time back, multi-level marketing, so the Mary Kays of the world, the Herbalifes of the world, where I think -- And I may get the statistics wrong, but I think it was like 90 percent of people involved in Mary Kay actually weren't profitable. I think that segment of the gig economy, meaning where you have to invest in some sort of asset, whether that's a car, a house, or in the case of the multi-level marketing firms, actual product. There I think you do run into the issue where people, it's much more difficult and opaque for people to know what they're really making.
NNAMDIKatie, many who drive for rideshare companies do so, because, well, it's very flexible. It can provide income or supplement another job. But you spoke with drivers who really struggle, what issues have you seen?
WELLSYeah, so the drivers that we spoke to were not -- we spoke to 40 Uber drivers and did in-depth, in-person interviews with them and surveys, financial surveys. And the drivers we spoke to were not those that we've so far heard in terms of the callers. They were not journalists or freelance art editors or adjunct instructors. These were people, who worked previously at Wal-Mart as asbestos removal contractors. They worked for Fuddruckers. They worked in retail and restaurant, for Marshall's retail store.
WELLSAnd so, for them they were trying to move away from a lot of the volatility of the online scheduling that's common in a lot of the retail and restaurant industry where their hours would shift from week-to-week and it was hard to plan their lives. And so, for Uber, it did let them, you know, turn on and off the app, but it didn't let them control a lot else about the workplace.
NNAMDIHere is Chuck in Bethesda, Maryland. Chuck drives for Lyft. Chuck, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHUCKHi. So, my question is like most -- I've been doing Uber, I mean, Lyft for almost six months now, and it's been kind of difficult, because I feel that technology or Lyft, they take up so much money out of each ride. And so, therefore, especially when you're going to the airport, there's also airport fees as well, especially Dulles and at GCA. So, how does one like me make a living, put food on the table, because I'm out there hustling 15 hours a day just to make a buck. And it's really -- I feel like it's like another slave wager to be honest.
NNAMDISo, you are driving for Lyft 15 hours a day, so that suggests that you do, you have no other job. Correct?
CHUCKCorrect, yeah, I was laid off a year ago, and so I won't, you know, had to go to Lyft or just to do something, because I wasn't getting further into the job market, because there's too much competition of people out of work these days.
NNAMDISound like some of the Uber drivers you've been talking to, Katie?
WELLSYeah, unfortunately it does. Some of the drivers that we met earned less than five dollars an hour when we did the budgets with them and they took into consideration the expenses in their fares.
NNAMDIHey, Chuck, thank you very much for your call. Mathieu, how much does Snagajob pay its workers?
STEVENSONSo, we don't actually set the wages for the workers themselves, who are actually Snag employees. So, a big difference we were discussing prior to the show is they are actually employees of Snag and so get the associated benefits. The wages themselves are set by the actual firms, who are looking for them to basically fill in for a shift. And typically, there's a premium for that, because they're having to pick something up within a matter of hours.
NNAMDIAre Snag workers considered independent contractors?
STEVENSONNo. So, we have made the choice to actually have them be employees of Snag even though they are in terms of their work acting very much like gig workers. So, that is a difference that you may find from the Ubers, etcetera.
NNAMDIJeannette, what could it mean if more platforms like Snag start handing out W2 forms instead of 1099s? Could that be a solution to the problems some people have with the lack of security?
CHAPMANIt could help, certainly. The growth, though, that we've seen recently has been in the 1099 workforce thus far. Snagajob seems to be a little bit anomalous in the main baseline of growth. So the trade-off with that is it tends to be more expensive for the organizing entity, whether that's the platform or a company and whether or not it makes sense for an organization to move forward on a more employee-based model is going to vary pretty drastically and as a startup you may not actually know whether or not it will make financial sense until you try something.
NNAMDIAnd for the average worker the 1099, of course, is simply what you made, period. A W-2 form is when the employer deducts federal and local income taxes and social security and so if you're working and getting and filling out a 1099, if you have not individually made an attempt to either put aside the money for your taxes or put aside saving for retirement then you could be in a more difficult position.
CHAPMANAbsolutely. Absolutely correct. And there are also thresholds for 1099 that some people may or -- sometimes it might overcomplicate your tax season if you don't know what companies you're getting a 1099 from, because you've made that threshold but other companies you might not. You're still liable for those earnings on a federal perspective. You might not have the forms for it, though.
NNAMDIRazor's Edge e-mails us. I'm a 50-year-old mom with two tweens. After 15 years of being a stay-at-home mom homeschooling my children and living with an emotionally abusive husband the only way out was to take a long-term temp job, 15 dollars an hour is edge of life living and I have panic attacks every time the weather is bad, because I lose time. When my kids are sick I lose time. If the management gives regular employees the gift of a day off it's no gift to me.
NNAMDII'm still on public-assisted insurance and I live every day wondering what will happen if this job goes away. I hate this. Have you been hearing a lot of that kind of thing Jeanette Chapman? People living on the edge?
CHAPMANThere are -- Metro area is a very high cost Metro area so there are a lot of people living on the edge, even wage and salary workers, restaurant, retail, leisure and hospitality in particular and a lot of people need to make really very difficult decisions as to the types of work that they're going to pursue and what is the best option available in a given timeframe. Oftentimes those -- the options aren't ideal and that's the unfortunate reality of living in a high-cost area with opportunities that are finite.
NNAMDIAlexandria in New York City accepted our offer to call in. Alexandria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXANDRIAHi, thanks so much for having me. I am a freelance theater and film producer. I work in the D.C. and New York City area primarily and I guess my question is I started out by choice as sort of a gig worker and now I feel like I'm stuck in a vicious cycle of having to continue to do gig work in this economy, because employers just are reluctant to hire me after seeing my resume, because they either assume that I'm flighty and I'm not going to stay long-term with them or they think that I'm a generalist and I have too much expertise or lack of expertise thereof in different areas of knowledge and so I'm wondering how we change this type of thinking in employers so that I can get a more stable full-time job?
NNAMDIThat is a fascinating conundrum and that is if you are in the gig economy and have been for a while how do you get out? Is that something you've had to deal with Mathieu?
STEVENSONFor sure. I think you see that quite a bit, obviously, in -- across industries. I think the good news is that's changing, because I think as gig becomes more common and the concept of work becomes more fluid, employers are becoming much more accepting of, call it non-linear paths, meaning I may have been an employee. I may have then gone and done freelancing for a couple of years and decided to come back. So I know we, as an example, have seen that quite a lot.
NNAMDIAnd before we go to break, Constance in Silver Spring e-mails. Most people don't realize that temps and contract workers in effect don't get protections under the Americans with Disability Act, which require that reasonable accommodations be made in the workplace for workers with disabilities. If you're a temp you have to take whatever you get wherever you get sent. If you need a chair that supports your back as I do, you're just not going to get it. As a temp I usually get the worst desk, the worst chair, and the worst computer. Not surprising as a temp, you're basically a human spare part.
NNAMDIBut I suspect that if that person is operating through a temp agency the agency should inform prospective employers that this individual has a specific disability and needs, in this case, a specific kind of chair. Is that something that employers would be reluctant to do for a temporary worker, because, of course, it is a temporary worker do you think Jeanette?
CHAPMANI think that's a legal -- more legal question than I'm...
NNAMDIThat is true. It is really legal.
CHAPMAN...than I know the answer to.
NNAMDIIf you're a lawyer, give us a call, (800) 433-8850. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk -- continue this conversation about the effects of the gig economy in this region. If you're calling and the lines are busy, send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the gig economy in this region with Mathieu Stevenson, Chief Marketing Officer for Snagajob. Jeanette Chapman is Deputy Director and Senior Research Associate at George Mason University's Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region's Economic Future. And Katie Wells is Geographer and Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgetown University. She has been researching the work lives of Uber drivers in Washington D.C.
NNAMDIWe had an e-mail from Betty who said I contract work hourly as a yoga instructor, as many yoga teachers do. This works for me as I am a senior citizen and a retiree from a 30-year career as a financial analyst. I can make my own hours, negotiate pay, choose my employer and it broadens my social life and keeps me fit as I have club privileges at one of the clubs at which I teach. So clearly this is working for some people, Jeanette Chapman.
CHAPMANExactly. So we think often of the younger or maybe the prime working age population when we think of the gig economy, because it is slightly more prevalent in that age group, but there are quite a number of retirees or nearing retirement people who decide to either pursue passion projects that they didn't do while they were working in their main career or just continue their existing career.
CHAPMANWe're a highly professional and technical service oriented economy here so we actually have a really high concentration of gig economy workers, who do, in essence, what they would have been doing during their day job but they do it either on the side, in retirement, or to have access to a client-base that they don't necessarily have through their day-to-day job.
STEVENSONI think it's important to recognize that, at least in past studies, around 70 percent of all gig workers are doing it by choice so I think we have to be careful there. There are the 30 percent who have to do it for basic necessity, but a big piece of it is exactly like the example you mentioned who it's a way to really have control over your destiny and your life and it's actually quite empowering for those when you speak to them.
NNAMDIHere's Deb in Milford, Delaware. Deb, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
DEBHi, Kojo and guests. I'm a huge fan. Thanks so much for this program. I hope that what I have to say can enlighten your guests as well as other people listening. I'm recently relocated to Delaware from New Hampshire and I live with a chronic mental illness. I have a great career and in 2000 I had to get taken out of corporate America. I had many years of medication that just fried by brain.
DEBWith regards to that, I had to go on disability, which I'm still on. A lot of shame around that and in the midst of it, right when I went on I decided that I was going to take my life back with the grace of getting on disability to just manage my illness, but I was going to get a part-time job and from that moment of being on disability I was so grateful that I had rent money that I was able to get a job to promote rehab. It was -- I got a job at LensCrafters. That job led to an eight-year career at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI New Hampshire, and now I'm working with folks on disability.
DEBAnd so my purpose in the call is that jobs aren't just for financial purpose. It's also for an opportunity to find purpose and in my experience getting out of corporate America it was crucial for my purpose on life, for my purpose in my life, to contribute to society to get some kind of opportunity to bring me back to, you know, working and having the grace of being in public and (word?) and all of that. So that was...
NNAMDISo it's all worked for you, Deb.
DEBSo the other part of this in this experience is now I work with folks that have emotional, intellectual, physical disabilities and the journey for them, you know, it helps with the employers, but it also gives them purpose and it's a huge part of confidence and building somebody's opportunities to be contributing...
DEB...and to be reaping the benefit of income.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing your story with us, Deb. I have a now deceased brother, who struggled with mental illness for years and was willing to do a part-time job in an economy in which there was no gig economy and so, as a result, he wasn't able to work at all so you raise a very important point. We got an e-mail from someone, who wrote in anonymously who says, as an Uber/Lyft driver and electric scooter charger, how do we convince companies to treat workers better? What policy actions could be taken? I feel powerless and abused in this gig economy?
NNAMDIAnd, well, Timothy in Columbia, Maryland wants to talk a little bit about that aspect of things. Timothy, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
TIMOTHYYes. Thanks, Kojo. So my question is, I mean, I think one of the premises we sort of have to deal with is that you had mentioned 70 percent of the workforce is doing this voluntarily. I mean, I think, though, if you -- you have to ask yourself if you present to those people the option of a full-time permanent job with benefits, would they really choose to stay in the gig economy?
TIMOTHYAnd so then if you follow that premise that people would prefer full-time work and benefits the question is how do we better advocate as laborers for those benefits with folks that own businesses or people that are hiring? And currently I think most people think of unions. Well, unions are 11 percent in the U.S. as far as membership...
TIMOTHY...the lowest since 1983. There's a lot of connotations with unions that they're unproductive, that they don't...
NNAMDIAnd Louis Hyman deals with that to a great extent in this book "Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary" about how unions have been losing their influence over the past several decades, but go ahead please.
TIMOTHYYeah. So my question really is what do you do now, right? If -- how do you get this larger and larger group of temporary workers, whether it be Uber or many other things or millions of Americans, who are starting to work out of their home increasingly, white collar workers, who are working from home using their own cars, how do you get these people now moving further and further away from the city and further away from each other, what are the odds that they can organize in any meaningful way to negotiate real benefits, some permanence in their job, a better working environment, and something they can rely on to build a family?
NNAMDIKatie Wells, is that something you've been hearing from some of the Uber drivers you've been talking to?
STEVENSONYeah. One of the hard things that we've found is that three-fourths of the drivers in our study had never had a drink or a meal with another Uber driver so what this caller is describing is pervasive in the gig economy where there is a veil over the working conditions. What we saw out in Los Angeles with the teachers suggests that talking to your peers is the first step and that hopefully by talking about the conditions of work they can understand that it isn't a failure of their own making, but the system is set out to make them fail.
NNAMDIJeanette, what have you heard from people about the tradeoff between flexibility and ease of finding work versus the insecurity of this kind of work?
CHAPMANSo as we've heard, there is a lot of variety in the types of people, who do these kinds of activities and what they're trying to achieve. So we talked a little bit about what's maybe a need versus a preference, but in reality those lines are much blurrier. There -- it's usually a combination of both. So people take a look at their options and select based on the basic thresholds that they have that they've set that I will and won't do as best as they can.
CHAPMANAnd that actually makes a policy solution for a universal policy solution even more difficult, because there will be people who say, I don't actually need a union because that's not what I'm in it for whereas perhaps maybe the people who rely full-time for the gig economy do perhaps want and need more stability. And so going back to your question, there is a tradeoff, very distinct tradeoff, between the variability in the scheduling and the security that you get from a wage-type job, a salaried position and they aren't mutually exclusive.
CHAPMANSo oftentimes what we see is people are pairing the two. So maybe you have a full-time job or a part-time job that has irregular hours and what we saw during the shutdown in particular, too, is that people would then enter into the gig economy to help smooth out those bumps, but the reverse is also true. If you're a full-time gig economy worker, your schedules and your wage earnings tend to be far more volatile.
NNAMDIOkay. Here's Deidre in Manassas, Virginia. Deidre, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
DEIDREHi, yes, I would stop doing what I'm doing immediately if it were not for the lack of insurance in the gig economy. I think still, I mean, you can get a high deductible insurance program or policy and pay into a health savings account, something of that nature, but still, you know, as you were talking about, it's instability.
DEIDREFor me, if the insurance question were -- or, you know, the insurance situation were better there are a lot of people, who would stop doing what they're doing right now and do something that they really love and would be a lot more productive at.
STEVENSONYeah, I mean, I can speak a little bit to the calculus around why we chose for the on-demand shift-workers, those snag work workers to be employees versus 1099ers and that really came down to two things: one, it's the right thing to do, personal opinion, and then secondly we felt very strongly that we needed to ensure that as they were taking shifts for a lot of our employer clients (unintelligible) food groups of the world. We needed to make absolutely certain that we were providing very high-quality workers and the way to do that, part of it was that was a way to attract really high quality workers and so it is a little bit of a market dynamic for us.
NNAMDIAnd Susan e-mails us. How do you retire from a gig job? Do you get any social security? What about when you become 70+ and no hire? I suspect among the older workers in the gig economy, Jeanette Chapman, that's what you hear about.
CHAPMANThe gig economy is -- in the way that we're talking about it right now is too new to have people who have been career gig economy. So what we tend to think of as the proxy here would be consultants, who are full-time consultants and that's an old model for many people self-employment and that's a common planning budgeting issue and it's -- well, retirement in general is difficult to plan for, even if you have social security or any other retirement plan.
CHAPMANIt's something that requires constant planning and tradeoff between what you can consume right now and what you need for later.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Jeanette Chapman is Deputy Director and Senior Research Associate at George Mason University's Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region's Economic Future. Jeanette, thank you for joining us.
CHAPMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMathieu Stevenson is Chief Marketing Officer for Snagajob. Mathieu, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Katie Wells is a Geographer and Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgetown University. She has been researching the work lives of Uber drivers in Washington D.C. Katie, thank you for joining us.
WELLSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIToday's show on the gig economy was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
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