The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of workers that have embraced the freelance lifestyle. In fact, at this point, it’s estimated that gig workers comprise 34% of the U.S. workforce. Nearly everything from writing and editing, to consulting, transportation, photography, and cooking has been turned into a freelance gig in one way or another. While many of these jobs provide good pay, independence, and flexible hours, there is a potentially darker side to the gig economy.
Substandard Working Conditions
Job safety is a classic concern for the American worker. Over the years, many different safety standards have been set up to safeguard workers in the workplace.
However, many of these standards have been made in regards to the employer/employee relationship. When a freelancer is hired, they generally aren’t considered employees, but rather contractors. This means the employer can compensate contractors for their time, but not need to provide any health or safety benefits.
Chefs and line-cooks are good examples of this. Many for-hire hospitality workers are asked to work in kitchens where they are exposed to hot substances, chemical cleaners, sharp utensils, and slippery floors. Any of these premise liability concerns would typically be guarded against for an employee workforce, but a gig worker is typically left to fend for themselves in the event of an accident.
Potentially Precarious Situations
Along with being exposed to substandard working conditions, some gig workers are expected to operate in potentially precarious situations.
Rideshare drivers take center stage here. While the risks of ridesharing are typically focused on the passengers, drivers are also regularly at risk. They might be stuck driving in inclement weather — one of the most common situations for accidents to occur — and might be asked to visit dark, isolated, high-crime, and generally dangerous areas in order to pick up passengers — not to mention the fact that they are constantly on the roads, further risking getting into an accident. It’s a fact that has led to an on-the-job mortality rate that is 20 times higher than other workers.
Even the simple detail that rideshare drivers must use their phones to navigate has put them under strain. This is due to the fact that states like Tennessee have passed increasingly stringent hands-free driving laws that make operating the Uber or Lyft apps while driving more and more difficult.
Of course, Uber and Lyft drivers aren’t the only gig workers put in precarious situations. Dog walkers are another example. While full-time animal care specialists are professionally trained, a contract worker that walks dogs can do so on a whim. This can lead to an untrained laborer handling potentially dangerous animals — a situation that can quickly spiral out of control and lead to a bitten worker, an injured animal, or worse.
No Job Security
Job security is a form of compensation all on its own. While a contractor may make an excellent hourly rate (at times), that doesn’t always compensate for the fact that their supply of work can dry up in an instant.
A freelance writer, for instance, may find that a client has tens of thousands of dollars of work that they require to be written at a high standard and with a quick turnaround. They may provide this work for weeks or even months on end. This requires the freelancer to keep a significant portion of their schedule available to handle the workload — until it disappears overnight, sometimes without an explanation.
Even if the work provided by a client doesn’t completely dry up, it can ebb and flow in a frustrating manner that can make it difficult to balance a workload.
Common scenarios like these can leave freelancers scrambling to keep their income stable. If they live paycheck to paycheck, it can also lead to significant long-term financial concerns.
A Lack of Worker Protections
Another area where contract workers may notice a gap is in regard to worker protections and benefits that are typically included in many full-time employment packages.
These items can add up to a significant value. Items like 401(k) matching, healthcare, paid sick leave, paid time off, and even company-provided equipment like a computer or cell phone must all be paid for by the freelancer.
Even insurance can be an issue. For instance, rideshare drivers are technically protected under insurance provided by the rideshare company that they work for. However, this insurance is often limited and can disqualify them from their personal vehicle insurance.
This has led some rideshare gig workers to push for legislation that qualifies them as employees so that they can receive proper coverage both on and off the job. However, even the passage of this kind of legislation has put a strain on the gig economy in other ways, as companies have been forced to lay off freelancers when they cannot afford to hire them as official “employees.”
Rapidly Changing Fields
The rapidly changing nature of many modern industries constantly threatens the livelihood of freelance workers. Often training that would traditionally be provided by an employer to keep their employees up-to-date on current methods and equipment must be both paid for and undertaken (without pay) at the cost of the contract workers themselves.
A freelance marketer, for instance, may need to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars and invest countless hours of time to keep up on the latest trends with search engine optimization (SEO) or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
The situation facing rideshare drivers and automation is also constantly evolving. The gradual development of self-driving cars has already sparked a host of debates, such as who is at fault in the event of an accident. However, the questions relating to automated vehicles become even more relevant for Uber and Lyft drivers that could be impacted by the potential of self-driving vehicles eventually becoming the norm.
Whether it’s unsafe working conditions or a lack of benefits and job security, there are many challenging elements that might come along with the flexibility and independence of working in the gig economy.