Over 48 million people have applied for unemployment compensation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the unemployment rate in the United States is 11.1%. Though the newest numbers aren’t quite as bad as what economists predicted for July, nearly half of the U.S. population remains without a job. At this point, it feels like a lifetime ago that we celebrated a new year with a booming economy and an unemployment rate at a low of 3.6%.
Those who have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs are looking for new and flexible ways to make money during these hard times. It’s become evident that many of them are turning to gig work and online freelancing to help, as many platforms, including Fiverr, have noted an uptick in registrations during this time.
According to a recent study by ADP, the gig economy has increased by 6 million people since 2010, as app-based ride-sharing, home rental, and food delivery services have literally changed the way we live. So it’s no surprise that conversations around the gig economy seem to have grown exponentially over the past decade too. Many of the more policy-oriented conversations point to broader concerns about the long-term financial security and safety of these types of workers. Many have cautioned against gig work, pointing to long and irregular working hours, a lack of stable income, and the absence of important social safety net protections such as health insurance and retirement savings.
This is an important and urgent conversation, but it’s also important—as COVID-19 has so harshly revealed—that we consider the differences between gig workers and skilled freelance workers. Lumping them together does a disservice to both groups. One thing that is becoming increasingly clear as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses is that digital workers, particularly skilled digital freelancers, are well positioned and well equipped to survive, succeed, and thrive.
For example, skilled freelancers are able to choose their own rates and dictate their own hours, taking on as much or as little work as they want at their desired pay. They also have the opportunity to work across a wide range of industries depending on their skill set, including graphic design, content writing, and web development. Additionally, while the rest of the world is taking part in the largest work-from-home experiment ever, more than 84% of freelancers were already working from home, with a strong clientele already built up.
Moreover, a recent survey done by Fiverr found that 71% of skilled freelancers across the U.S. are highly satisfied with their work and consider one of the top benefits of their work to be having control over when and how they work. For comparison, a separate survey found that 55.5% of Uber and Lyft drivers were dissatisfied with their work in 2019 and that 68% of drivers quit within their first six months of getting started.
On the other hand, gig workers are being tasked with the horrific decision of whether to risk their personal safety and deliver groceries and provide rides, or put their physical health ahead of their financial health and not work at all—a difficult decision for many who not only rely on gig work income but are also considered essential workers during this pandemic. According to a recent survey by Gig Workers Rising, a campaign aimed at educating and supporting app and platform workers, 53% of surveyed ride-share drivers were very concerned about reduced earnings during the pandemic, and 43% were concerned about contracting COVID-19 while on the job.
While these subsets of workers have their differences, and it is important to recognize them, they are all people who work hard and make up a huge and growing sector of the labor market, and they deserve the same protections and rights as other workers.
First off, yes, it’s great that now independent contractors, freelancers, and gig workers are eligible to apply for loans and grants under the CARES Act. However, protections such as these need to become standard practice, put into law immediately—not just a privilege evoked during a global crisis.
These workers also deserve protections from both a financial and a health standpoint. For example, legal protections to help freelancers get paid on time would help make it easier for them to earn a sustainable living. Freelancers working on platforms are most often protected in this sense, but offline freelancers have zero support should a client defer on their payments. From a healthcare standpoint, a portable benefits system is necessary, as healthcare is one of the top concerns among freelancers. Freelancers and gig workers are currently responsible for paying astronomical fees for healthcare, a struggle that is even more glaringly problematic during a global health pandemic, but one that a portable benefits system could solve.
Gig workers such as drivers and delivery people are on the front lines these days, and they need to be rewarded, recognized, and protected as such. On the other hand, freelancers such as social media marketers and web developers are helping to keep America’s small businesses going by providing them with the services they need to move their businesses online or improve their existing online presence. While the work they do is different, it doesn’t make any single worker more or less important than the other, and it’s important that policymakers in D.C. see the situation as such.
Brent Messenger is the vice president of public policy and community at Fiverr.