Accounting for Independent Work: What the 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement Got Right, and What It Missed

If you spent most of this morning perusing the long-awaited release of the 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS), you’re not alone. As part of a nationally representative and rigorously collected survey of U.S. households and their working members, the CWS provides a vital source of information on the lives of working Americans and deserves a good read. Here’s our brief take on their results and what they mean for future research and policy.

For over a decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been mute on the perceived shift toward alternative work arrangements. A lack of funding to run the CWS meant that the most recent data capture happened in 2005, and most instances of the survey before that occurred in the 1990s. We all know that much has changed in the last decade alone, significantly impacting our working lives. In 2005, Uber was just another German word and a TaskRabbit sounded more like an animal than a worker. So kudos to them for funding a run of the survey in 2017. That said, the narrow scope of the CWS severely constrains the picture it’s able to paint.

Overall, the BLS reports that 10.1% of all working Americans engaged in independent work in 2017. The first thing to keep in mind is that the survey only asked respondents about their “sole or main job”, which means anyone working independently in a supplemental or on an as-needed basis was excluded from their count. Reviewing other data sources reveals how this can lead to an under representation of the role of independent work in worker lives. Other nationally representative surveys find that a significant portion of independent work does not occur on a full-time basis. For example, in its most recent survey, MBO Partners found that 29% of independent workers worked in this capacity part-time and an additional 32% on an occasional basis (at least once per month). Samaschool’s research suggest the same. In our 2017 survey, 74% of our alumni working independently reported doing so on a part-time basis.

Furthermore, the CWS only references work that the respondent completed in the past week. But widening the survey lense to capture a longer time period shows the prevalence of independent work as a complement or supplement to a primary job. For our alumni who were reporting about their work lives over the course of a year, almost half of those working independently did so in some combination with traditional full-time or part-time work.

Secondly, the CWS fails to provide insight into how workers are finding these alternative arrangements, an important topic for researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners. While the BLS has promised to release this type of data at a later date, the question set seems limited and focused only on mobile apps and websites. Ours, and other research, suggests again a broader approach is needed here. While 44% of independent work opportunities found by our alumni were via online platforms, 39% came through personal networks / referrals and 16% through staffing agencies.

Finally, while we applaud the BLS for its 2017 release, this data is only helpful in so far as it’s collected regularly. As others have noted, it’s imperative that surveys like the CWS are implemented regularly and frequently to keep up with changes to the workforce and provide relevant information to policy makers and other stakeholders.

Research and how it’s implemented, has weighty consequences for workers and our economy more broadly. If the role of alternative work arrangements and independent workers is underestimated, we’re unable to understand and support this dynamic segment of our workforce in critical areas such as benefits and worker protections. At Samaschool, we are committed to regularly surveying our program alumni in a nuanced manner to add depth to this conversation, especially as it relates to low- to middle-income workers. Stay tuned here for own data releases in the coming months.

Interested in learning more about our research agenda and methodology? Contact our Director of Impact, Kosar Jahani, here or at kjahani@samaschool.org.