Gig Work Prevalence Highlights Impact of Lost Benefits

Off the Charts: The Visual Says It All

Delivery woman driving van with packages on the front seat.
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Luis Alvarez

Gig workers—who lost access to unemployment benefits Monday—are an increasingly important part of the labor force, a new poll shows.

The ranks of Americans employed as independent, or gig, workers either full-time, part-time, or occasionally has swelled over the last year, growing 34% to reach 51 million. That’s according to a July poll of 6,240 U.S. adults that was released last week and commissioned by MBO, a company that connects businesses with independent contractors. A major reason for the increase was workers trying to replace income that disappeared when they lost their jobs or their hours were cut amid the pandemic’s economic downturn, MBO said.

The poll illustrates the growing importance of independent workers in the labor force, just as they’ve lost access to the safety net of unemployment benefits that was provided to them for the first time when the pandemic hit. The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, created by the CARES Act in March 2021, was extended twice by relief bills and finally ran out on Monday along with other pandemic-era unemployment programs. Self-employed workers normally are unable to collect jobless benefits. 

As of Aug. 14, about 9.2 million people, including 5.4 million in the PUA program, were still claiming benefits under the programs that expired Monday, according to the most recent weekly report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The impact of the benefits running out will be felt not just by the workers, but by their families as well. When entire households are taken into account, the benefits cutoff could take income away from as many as 35 million people, according to a calculation by the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank. That number was computed by multiplying the number of impacted workers by the average size of households receiving unemployment benefits, and may be a slight overestimation due to the possible double-counting of homes where more than one person is unemployed, Matt Bruenig, the PPP’s president, said in an email. 

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