Employment and Jobs

What to Know in Advance of BLS’ Online Work Data Release

September 27, 2018  • Shelly Steward

How many people use online platforms like Uber, Upwork, or Mechanical Turk to arrange work? Up to this point, estimates have relied mostly on privately collected data. This Friday, though, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will release its first measure of online platform or electronically mediated work.

On Friday:

  • BLS will release data on online and offline work arranged on websites and mobile apps
  • Data include primary and secondary jobs, as well as additional work for pay in the past week
  • Other data sources estimate around 1.5 percent of households earn platform income

Four new questions were asked of respondents at the end of the Contingent Worker Supplement in May 2017. That nationally representative survey, released in June, found that the number of people engaged in alternative work arrangements, including independent contracting and temp work, as their primary job has held steady at around ten percent over the past twenty years. Rather than focusing solely on people’s main job, the four questions to be released Friday, which were not included in the initial release, ask about any work that has been arranged through a website or app in the past week. One question asks specifically about “short in-person tasks or jobs,” and another asks about “short, online tasks or projects.” In-person work includes ridesharing, delivery, cleaning, caretaking, and many other types of work. Examples of online work are data entry, surveys, and graphic design. For both types of platform mediated work, respondents were asked if the work comprised a primary or secondary job, or an additional income source beyond a job.

Although this is the first time the BLS has asked these questions, existing data sources–including surveys, tax records, and administrative banking data–indicate that a small but growing share of the workforce uses online platforms. Earlier this week, the JPMorgan Chase Institute released a report that found 1.6 percent of households earn platform income in a given month, up from 0.3 percent five years ago. These estimates are based on analysis of anonymized Chase checking accounts, and include 128 different platforms. Other estimates similarly place the prevalence of platform work at about one percent.

Friday’s release is an important step in better understanding the role of online work in today’s labor market. It is the first Congressionally funded measure of this type of work, and relies on the most representative sample of available estimates. However, survey data is imperfect. It relies on respondents understanding questions in the same way as researchers, asks only about work in the past week, and cannot speak to the ways in which people may piece together different types of work in order to make a living. These new CWS questions will need to be paired with other types of data and built upon in coming years to establish a comprehensive understanding of work in today’s economy.