In the United States, we probe and test our economy like a nervous chef roasting a holiday turkey. We know precisely when the unemployment rate dips from 5 percent to 4.9 percent. We track the exact number of jobs the country adds (or loses) each month. When wages tick up ever so slightly, we’re immediately aware.

And yet, for all of our analyzing and auditing of the economy’s performance, many of us have missed a profound shift in the nature of work in America today. Labor economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger estimate that over the past decade, all of America’s net new employment has come from people working in “alternative work arrangements”—that is, temp work, contracting, on-call work, freelancing, or gig work obtained through digital platforms like TaskRabbit and Uber. All of these arrangements stand outside of the traditional employer-employee model.

We recently completed a four-month exploration of independent work in the United States, with a focus on identifying this workforce’s vulnerabilities, as well as promising innovations and opportunities for action. Our investigation included a synthesis of the existing research. We also interviewed researchers and practitioners with diverse perspectives on the shift toward more independent work.

What’s clear is that independent work is now a fundamental part of the economy. Our best estimates suggest there are at least 36 million independent workers in the United States today—roughly a quarter of the workforce. Their share of the labor market could grow from 33 to 50 percent by 2020.

When we look at why independent work is growing, two very different stories emerge. First, there’s the story of higher-skilled, higher-earning workers who want greater autonomy, control, and flexibility in their work than what’s available in most corporate jobs. A recent McKinsey survey of more than 8,000 independent workers found that the majority participate in independent work out of choice rather than necessity, and most are more satisfied with nearly every aspect of their working lives as compared to traditional, full-time employees. Like most independent workers, higher-skilled workers—such as independent consultants or freelance app developers—may experience income instability. But their larger incomes cushion them from unexpected setbacks.

Take Chelsea Ricker, who was once an officer at blue-chip nonprofits like The International Planned Parenthood Federation. She and some colleagues recently struck out on their own as independent consultants and established a social enterprise called the Torchlight Collective. Today, Chelsea has more control over her work and, by extension, her life. Some things are harder, like finding decent-quality healthcare that’s affordable. But she is still working on the issues that matter to her the most, and she’s earning more per hour than she did in full-time, salaried roles.

Then there’s the story of lower-earning workers who can’t find suitable, full-time employment opportunities or are pushed out of conventional jobs. Maybe a robot or software application replaced them. Perhaps the hours were too unpredictable or the working conditions too unsafe. Or their company decided that it needed more flexibility in the increasingly competitive global economy and shifted much of its workforce from employees to contingent labor. Whatever the cause, the result is that these workers often have a less-predictable income and fewer of the benefits typically available to employees, like health insurance and sick days. These workers and their families face significant economic instability.

For example, Fasil Teka lives in Seattle and spends 40 hours a week driving for Uber, in addition to planning parties and driving shuttle buses. As he put it to Wired, he enjoys the flexibility that comes with juggling several gigs, and he’s proud to be an entrepreneur. But he is largely unprotected from the things that can go wrong in life. If he’s out sick with the flu, he can’t earn a day’s pay. Last New Year’s Eve, his car got totaled; the insurance-claims process has been draining and costly. He struggles to save enough to manage life’s ups and downs. If Uber drops him, he most likely would not have unemployment insurance to fall back on, because by law he is not an Uber employee.

An Inaccessible Employment Model

Whether they enter independent work out of choice or necessity, people in such arrangements must try to stitch together the kind of stability and safety nets that conventional, high-quality employment can provide. This includes sick days, family leave for new parents or people caring for elderly or sick family members, insurance for on-the-job injuries, saving for retirement, decent health care, and the stress-reducing dependability of a bi-weekly paycheck.  

The system in the United States that aims to ensure security and stability for hardworking Americans—including worker’s compensation, sick leave, minimum wage, and protection from discrimination—was built around a conventional employment model that is now largely inaccessible to independent workers. Similarly, access to reasonable credit often requires proof of regular income from a conventional employer.

With a growing part of the workforce making their livelihoods independently, we need a new system that provides greater stability and security.

Shaping a Stable, Independent Workforce

Fortunately, independent work is a nonpartisan issue. Philanthropists, policymakers, politicians, nonprofits, and private firms have an opportunity, if not an imperative, to help shape the independent workforce so that it both delivers value to the economy and contributes to stable households and communities.

There are many innovators already working on this challenge, with the most activity devoted to increasing access to benefits and enhancing financial and economic stability for workers and their families. Here are three of the many promising innovations we encountered during our exploration.

1. Benefits that “travel” with workers across jobs: Care.com

Care.com, an online marketplace that connects millions of families with babysitters and other caregivers, has devised a novel innovation to help enhance the stability of the independent workers on its platform. Care.com offers workers an annual cash benefit of $500, which families (clients) pay for through a small surcharge as a “caregiver benefit.” Workers have the flexibility to annually put any or all of the $500 towards health care, transportation, or other work-related expenses. What’s innovative is that the cash benefit remains with independent workers no matter who they work for. Instead of one client providing the benefit, multiple clients contribute at very small levels.

Some cities and the private sector are focusing on broader ways to provide benefits to workers who are not tied to a single employer—through so-called “portable benefits.” Labor advocates are debating whether this would legally obligate companies and other entities to treat independent workers as employees. But leaders at organizations including the Aspen Institute and Etsy are recommending portable-benefit solutions that could work for employers and independent workers alike.  

2. Insuring independent workers against workplace accidents and injuries: Black Car Fund

Countless independent workers lose income because they aren’t entitled to workers’ compensation—insurance that replaces lost wages and provides medical benefits to workers who are injured on the job. Ester, a domestic worker in San Francisco, pulled her back out while carrying a heavy pail of water up two flights of stairs. Her injury forced her to leave her job. Since she’s an independent worker and not an employee, she’s ineligible for worker’s compensation. A 15-year old innovation shows us one way to help people like Ester:

Created by state statute in 1999, the nonprofit Black Car Fund provides workers’ compensation to limo drivers in the state of New York. Although for-hire drivers are independent contractors, the statute covers them. Passengers pay a 2.5 percent surcharge on their fares, which allows the fund to pay out claims to drivers injured in work-related accidents. The fund targets only workers’ compensation—it doesn’t provide health insurance or cover drivers who crash while commuting to work. Now that it has undergone real-world testing, it might be possible to apply some of its principles to other independent work sectors.

3. A “smart” savings account for ensuring that income still flows during dry spells: Even

In 2015, the Federal Reserve found that nearly a third of American households experience significant income swings. One of the principal causes is irregular work hours, which plague independent workers. The problem: freelance writers, Uber drivers, and office temps often earn their income in spurts, with surges in some weeks, followed by declines when they are ill or unable to line up the next assignment. They may max out their credit cards to fill the gaps, and pay a price in exorbitant interest fees and mounting stress.

A software app called Even aims to smooth out choppy income streams. As this article in the New York Times explains, when users earn more than their projected weekly salary, the app deposits the extra cash into an Even-managed savings account. When users endure a lean week and earn less, they still get their salary, since Even draws from past surpluses. Users pay a $3 weekly fee for the service, which just might be a reasonable tradeoff when compared to credit card interest rates.

Building Momentum for Change

Our research found that independent workers are a diverse group, who don’t necessarily believe they have much in common. At first glance, Uber drivers in Seattle would seem to be pretty disconnected from domestic workers in New York.

Yet independent workers in different places, industries, and roles share many similar experiences—challenges like economic instability, but also an appreciation for the freedom and entrepreneurship that many types of independent work often bring. As policymakers, philanthropists, private firms, and independent workers themselves come to recognize this, the opportunities for new collaborations and innovations will multiply.

Learn more about these innovations and others in more detail in SSIR’s upcoming webinar, “The Gig Economy.”

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