There is growing attention being paid to the future of work, and concern that changing work relationships—for example, independent contractors, contract agency workers, gig workers, app-based workers, etc.—are evolving faster than BLS can develop the tools to measure. How has BLS considered collecting data to document these forms of work?
The main thing BLS has done is run a supplement to the current population survey, called the Survey of Contingent Work and Alternative Work Arrangements. BLS was doing this about every two years around 1995, then funding issues meant BLS has not been able to run it since 2005. It’s been asking for appropriations to be able to do it, but not receiving them. But the Department of Labor stepped forward to fund it in 2017. It was fielded May 2017. The data will be out probably early 2018. The survey is pretty much the same as what was done in the past, so you’ll be able to document the trends in it, which is really important. And there have been two questions added: was this contingent work or alternative work? Was it mediated through an electronic platform, with matching, or was the work done electronically, on a computer, so you didn’t go anywhere, you just did it? (This is the Mechanical Turk kind of work and the first one is like Uber). Those questions are on it and that will be interesting. But that’s a one-shot deal, and BLS is going to need to have the resources to follow it; that’s a concern: that it’s a one-shot deal.
There’s one other case in which this has been documented to some extent. In the census of fatal occupational illnesses and injuries they added a field documenting whether the person who was killed was a contractor and from that we learned contractors have a much higher fatality rate than regular employees. What’s interesting about that is that contractors probably don’t have as much training and they probably have much lower tenure on any kind of work than a regular employee, so it does suggest they may well be doing more dangerous work but also their circumstances just inherently make things more dangerous because they’re less likely to be trained.
The gaping hole is in understanding how employers see these alternative works and how they’ve changed their attitude toward how they obtain labor. It’s very interesting to see it from the household side: what kind of work are people doing, what are the characteristics of the workers—but you also want to know which employers make the decision for what reasons and how the performance of firms changes when they adopt these strategies. And in order to do that, you need to survey employers about that. That’s really nascent; it hasn’t been done by BLS or very much by anyone else before. BLS in interested in doing that, and one step toward doing that is changing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages Annual Refiling Survey to enrich it to make it a random sample each quarter and then being able to add some questions about other things but also about these sorts of things, the employment practices of establishments. That, I think, will be very illuminating. BLS is making the changes in those directions but it will need additional funding to actually be able to go after this set of questions.