The gig economy has launched a healthy "future of work" panel circuit amid a roaring debate over whether apps like Uber, Postmates, and Handy—which hire an army of independent contractors instead of employees—represent a return to the sweatshop or a new freedom to work when and how one pleases. But all sides of the debate face the same dilemma: When they propose a new policy or launch a new initiative, they have only a vague idea of how many workers it could impact. There is no current government data that specifically catalogs this group of workers.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez announced plans to solve this problem by counting workers who labor outside the traditional structure of full-time employment. The survey of what the government calls "contingent workers" will be a supplement to the May 2017 Current Population survey.
The Department of Labor ran this contingent worker survey regularly until 2005, when it was defunded by Congress. With only decade-old government data about this working population, proposed solutions for "gig workers" have thus relied on inflated third-party surveys, obscure data points, and predictions based on private company data—none of which are the most impartial sources upon which to base new policies.
"The information we get from this survey," Secretary Perez wrote in a blog post on the DOL website, "will help the department do something that's essential to smart policymaking and smart business: understanding the past and present so that we can prepare for the future."