Employment and Jobs

Unveiling Sustainable Pathways in the Gig Economy

December 7, 2023  • Frances Almodovar

Over the past decade, the “gig economy” has become a common term, as increasing numbers of workers piece together gigs to make a living, and app-based platforms have become a part of daily life for millions. Still, there’s little shared understanding of what the “gig economy” is, who gig workers are, and what challenges they face. On August 8, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program hosted a virtual event on this subject, “Good Work in the Gig Economy: Building a Sustainable App-based Economy.” The conversation welcomed an insightful panel of speakers representing diverse perspectives on the gig economy. This includes Will Coleman, co-founder and CEO at ride-sharing company Alto; Lexi Gervis, VP of impact at Steady, a financial management app for gig workers; Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a worker center based in New York City; Adrian Haro, chief executive officer of The Workers Lab, an innovation lab that partners with workers to develop new ideas that help them succeed; and moderator Shelly Steward, director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute. This conversation delved into the state of gig work today and the challenges it presents, exploring frontiers where individuals are challenging the status quo and envisioning a version of gig work that is both sustainable and equitable.

The conversation started by addressing the inherent challenges posed by the unpredictability of some gig jobs. These challenges, ranging from fluctuating wages and inconsistent job availability to external factors like weather, underscored the complex and variable landscape gig workers navigate daily. In her opening remarks, Shelly Steward highlighted many gig workers’ desire for solidarity and interpersonal connections in their work, acknowledging the struggle to foster these bonds within the dispersed work settings that characterize gig work. Still, amidst the stress of unpredictability, workers take pride in what they do, understand their essential contributions to society, and often see hope and possibility in this sector.

We heard from Ligia Guallpa, a dedicated advocate who leads the Worker’s Justice Project. Since 2010, Guallpa has tirelessly organized gig workers across industries as varied as construction, day labor, domestic work, and app-based deliveries. Through innovative strategies and a deep commitment to transforming these sectors, Guallpa and her team strive to secure dignified, protected jobs with proper worker representation, recognizing the profound interconnectedness between workers’ rights, environmental justice, health equity, and human rights.

The audience was then introduced to Alto, a pioneering player in the ride-hailing industry founded by Will Coleman in 2018. Coleman shared that his goal was to create a rideshare platform that is better for both drivers and passengers. This enterprise has defied convention by classifying all its drivers as W-2 employees instead of independent contractors, providing them with company-owned vehicles, and emphasizing excellent customer service. Alto’s innovative approach has contributed to its growing presence across five major US cities — Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington DC — proving that alternative models can and will work to drive great outcomes for everyone involved.

Steady’s Lexi Gervis delved into one of the major factors that contributes to the gig economy’s instability: the lack of essential workplace benefits for gig workers. She shared research highlighting gig workers’ financial challenges, and suggested possible solutions to improve their lives. These included making benefits more portable across different jobs, and reducing barriers to public benefits like SNAP, Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance.

In his closing remarks, The Workers Lab’s Adrian Haro discussed the potential for a public option for gig work–a publicly owned, pro-worker platform that directs people to good gig jobs, ensuring decent pay and conditions. In partnership with public sector leaders and community-based organizations, The Workers Lab is currently piloting such a platform in Chicago, Portland, and Oakland. The program seeks to innovate how work is distributed, making access to good gigs more equitable while meeting employers’ needs and responding to local markets.

As the curtains drew on this event, it became evident that the precarious and unpredictable nature of gig work is not a given. We heard about emerging bright spots that illustrate the potential for this sector to evolve into a dynamic and sustainable space driven by collaboration, innovation, and a relentless commitment to the well-being of gig workers. This conversation highlighted the potential for a brighter, more just future where gig jobs are good jobs.