Employment and Jobs

Exploring the Online Platform Economy with New Data from BLS & the JPMorgan Chase Institute

October 17, 2018  • Alastair Fitzpayne & Shelly Steward

Last week, the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative and the JPMorgan Chase Institute hosted an event, “New Data and Implications for Today’s Labor Market: The JPMorgan Chase Institute and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics present on the Online Platform Economy,” highlighting and discussing two recent measures of online platform work. Online platforms use apps or websites to connect workers to tasks, jobs, or income opportunities, like Uber, TaskRabbit, or Etsy. Both the JPMorgan Chase Institute and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released reports estimating that between one and two percent of the workforce arrange work through these types of platforms. At the event, Fiona Greig, Director of Consumer Research at the JPMorgan Chase Institute, and Mike Horrigan, Associate Commissioner for Employment and Unemployment Statistics at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, presented on these recent studies.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute’s “The Online Platform Economy in 2018: Drivers, Workers, Sellers, and Lessors” analyzed transactions from 2.3 million Chase checking accounts, finding that 1.6 percent of families had earned income from an online platform in the past month, up from just 0.3 percent five years ago. By far, transportation platforms, including ridesharing and delivery, dominate both the number of participants and total transaction volume.

These findings were consistent with those from the BLS, which estimated that 1.0 percent of the working population had engaged in platform work, the first government measure of this type of work. The Contingent Worker Supplement, collected in 2017, had asked about platform mediated work directly, but problems with the questions led researchers to manually identify platform workers by listening to entire survey responses. Both data sources contribute to knowledge of the online platform economy, and highlight the challenges of accurately measuring a changing landscape of work.

After overviews of these findings, former BLS Commissioner Erica Groshen, currently a Visiting Senior Scholar at the ILR School of Cornell University, joined Greig and Horrigan for a panel discussion moderated by CNNMoney’s Lydia DePillis. The panel underscored the fact that we are at the very beginning of understanding this workforce, and the nature of work is continually evolving as we try to understand it. Developing measures of work that capture current arrangements while providing meaningful comparisons over time is a substantial challenge. Yet it is critical to improve our understanding of platform work, a new but growing arrangement, so that policymakers can make informed decisions to best help workers and the economy.

Following the panel discussion, the Future of Work Initiative and JPMorgan Chase Institute convened a roundtable of experts to discuss the new findings on the online platform economy, the dilemmas raised by this type of work, and how it relates to the broader economy. This roundtable brought together two dozen leaders representing a range of institutions, including government agencies, think tanks, worker advocacy organizations, and online platform companies. Key takeaways from the discussion include:

1) The online platform economy is challenging to measure. When studying online platforms or the gig economy, both defining the population of interest and accurately measuring it are difficult. Platform work and side gigs do not necessarily fit neatly into the categories traditionally used to measure work. Different types of data–like tax records, survey responses, or bank transactions, have strengths and weaknesses. For all, the definitions used influence which platforms would be included. For example, some studies, like the JPMorgan Institute report, require payments to be processed through the platform, which excludes platforms like Thumbtack, which do not process payments even though they match workers with jobs. Others, like the BLS questions that were developed to evaluate online platform work, ask about tasks or jobs, which is likely to leave out some selling and leasing platforms like Airbnb or Etsy.

2) Online platform workers face unique challenges. Although platform workers may experience flexibility and autonomy in their work, they also face challenges like income volatility, complex tax filing, and the possibility of misclassification. Furthermore, workers across arrangements face challenges that may be driving them to engage in gig work. Are workers turning to online platform work in order to build a more adequate safety net? Are they making too little in traditional employment, and needing to supplement their income with platform work to make ends meet? These are important considerations for better understanding the online platform economy, and the health of the economy more broadly.

3) Additional research can better inform policy solutions. There is a lot of work still to be done to gain a thorough understanding of platform work, its implications, and the needs of workers. The recent BLS data and the JPMorgan Chase Institute data demonstrate the importance of both public and private data sources in informing our understanding of this workforce. We look to continue to advance the conversation, share best practices across sectors, and better our understanding of the role of online work in today’s labor market.