(CN) – From apps that bring Chik-fil-A to your door, haul you to the airport in a Ford Focus and get Fido a walk while you’re at work, the surge of the gig economy is undeniable — putting a massive asterisk Thursday on a new report that shows a drop since 2005 in the number of Americans doing nontraditional work.
Counting only those workers who make gigging their full-time gig, and did so in the week they were surveyed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report this morning that says just 5.9 million people, about 3.8 percent of all workers, made up what is known in bureaucratic speak as the contingent-job sector in May 2017.
A spokesman for the bureau confirmed that the numbers represent a statistically significant decline from what the bureau found before the terminology for the gig economy even existed. Back in 2005, the last time the bureau put out a “Contingent Worker Survey,” about 4 percent of workers reported temporary or short-term work as their primary job.
One number that remained unchanged in the last 13 years is the 10.1 percent of workers who reported “alternative work arrangements,” meaning they were independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers or contractors.
Despite the survey’s limitations, the Future of Work Initiative lauded Thursday’s study as one of the most “rigorous” in the country on the issue of alternative work.
“What’s most important is that whoever’s running a survey or a study is very clear about what it is they’re measuring, and BLS tends to be very good at this,” Shelly Steward, research manager for the initiative, said in a phone interview.
“There’s not one answer that would provide us with a full picture of what’s going on in the labor market, but we need rigorous data that clearly identifies what it’s measuring,” Steward added.
Even without providing a full picture of all members of the gig economy, the initiative said the “Contingent Worker Survey” accesses hard-to-reach populations, has a national reach, is clearly worded and has a higher response rate than others.
Other groups to have studied nontraditional employment include the Freelancers Union and Upwork, which partner up every year for a report on the U.S. freelance industry. Their last study estimated that the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers by 2027.
Informal workers face unique challenges, however, not the least of which are employment instability, low income and access to benefits like health insurance, sick time or retirement plans.
“We encourage BLS and other researchers to further explore how workers are supplementing their income with freelance or independent work as a complement to the data that was released today,” Alastair Fitzpayne, the Future of Work Initiative’s Executive Director, said in a statement Thursday.
Because studies can define gig differently, results tend to vary. While the bureau does not label all contingent workers as “gig worker,” a broader definition of “gig” found in other research has covered moonlighters, those who have rented their apartments on Airbnb and those who sell hand-knitted scarves at craft shows.
The Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative called Thursday’s survey “a starting point” but noted that the bureau left out people who use gigs for supplemental income or occasionally complete freelance tasks.
Many workers who rely on online platforms like Uber are also left out.
The initiative quoted a May report from the the Federal Reserve, which found that half of all people who do alternative work do so “to supplement another income source.”
Steward at the Future of Work Initiative noted that the bureau’s report Thursday should be studied with past research in mind.
“These other surveys tell us that [Thursday’s results are] not everything that’s going on,” Steward said.
At Upwork, the group that puts out the annual survey with the Freelancers Union, CEO Stephane Kasriel noted that Thursday’s study has flaws but is a welcome contribution to the field of research.
“The government is best positioned to help us understand this workforce — they have access to the most data,” Kasriel said in a statement. “And I think there will be recognition that they need to do more in the hopefully not distant future.”
Kasriel tweeted about the study as well: “Upwork hopes future CWS research delves deeper & wants to help.”
One finding of Thursday’s report highlighted by Seyfarth Shaw attorney Camille Olson was that “fewer than one in 10 independent contractors would prefer a traditional work arrangement.
About 79 percent of independent contractors prefer their work arrangement to traditional jobs, the bureau found.
“Not surprisingly, we see similar levels of satisfaction of those who participate in other forms of alternative work arrangements,” Olson said in a statement. “Still, the report clearly reveals continuing concerns over compensation and benefits which deserve further examination by our nation’s policymakers.”
The bureau did ask four additional questions addressing online work in a supplement to its survey but did not include them in Thursday’s release.