Last winter, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) began to investigate the “gig economy,” or, in less trendy terms, the United States’ growing population of freelancers. Throughout the next months, he hosted about 10 roundtable discussions with gig economy workers in his state, met with the leaders of online platforms for work like Uber, Postmates, and Handy, and, more recently, became an outspoken advocate for exploring policies that better address freelancers’ needs. “Eight or nine months into this,” he tells Fast Company, “I’m more sure than ever that this is a fundamental shift in the economy and is going to accelerate.”
Though Sen. Warner is the only member of Congress who has explicitly targeted policy around the gig economy, the 273,000-member Freelancers Union has been making a case that more politicians should follow his lead. “Freelancers, a rapidly expanding share of the electorate, have become a legitimate political constituency,” its founder Sara Horowitz recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “and nobody is effectively speaking up for their needs.”
On Thursday, the nonprofit advocacy organization and online work platform Upwork released a survey of more than 7,000 U.S. workers that helped make this case. It estimates the number of people that do at least some independent or temp work at 53.7 million, or 34% of the workforce.
Almost 90% of the freelancers in the study said they are likely to vote in the 2016 general election, and 67% said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports freelancer interests.
Hillary Clinton vaguely mentioned these interests, saying that, “This ‘on demand’ or so-called ‘gig’ economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation, but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future,” adding that she would “crack down on bosses misclassifying workers as contractors.” And Jeb Bush managed to enter the “debate” by merely tweeting a photo of his ride in an Uber (he was headed to Thumbtack, a company that connects independent businesses with jobs).
None of the presidential candidates, however, has actually addressed those hard questions that Clinton mentioned.
In recent history, most social safety nets—like retirement savings, disability insurance, unemployment benefits—have been tied to traditional jobs. As fewer people work traditional jobs, fewer people will have access to these safety nets. Proposed solutions to this problem include creating a third type of worker classification between independent contractor and employee that allows for both flexibility and worker protections; a system of portable benefits that employers could pay into based on the number of hours a freelancer works; and clarifying policy to force more workers into a traditional employment definition. Freelancers in the Freelancers Union-Upwork study, meanwhile, said their top concerns were the cost of health care, unpredictable income, saving for retirement, and high taxation rates.
“It is really striking that these candidates are willing to leave this on the table when they face razor-slim majorities,” Horowitz says. “It’s like the elected officials are just not realizing what is bubbling up across the country.”