BLS Survey on Contingent Workforce Reveals more Continuity than Change

By Christina Peña, June 08, 2018

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released new contingent and alternative worker survey data on June 7, 2018. The BLS conducted the survey in May 2017 as a supplement to the Current Population Survey. Surprisingly, rates for this type of work have slightly decreased since the last survey in 2005.

BLS defines “contingent workers” as “people who do not expect their jobs to last or who reported that their jobs are temporary. They do not have an implicit or explicit contract for continuing employment.” People working under “alternative employment arrangements,” include “independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, and workers provided by contract firms.”

Workforce observers were anticipating larger leaps in the percentage of people participating in the contingent and alternative workforce. The percentage of those workers as part of the overall workforce has slightly declined (although the actual number of people in those jobs has increased as the U.S. population has grown overall). Here are a few statistics from the BLS release:

  • In May 2017, 3.8 percent of all workers held contingent jobs, compared with 4.1 percent in February 2005.
  • Independent contractors (including independent consultants and freelance workers in the “alternative” work category) represented 6.9 percent of total employment, down from 7.4 percent in February 2005.
  • Contingent, full-time workers earned 23 percent less ($685) in median weekly earnings compared to their non-contingent (“traditional worker”) counterparts ($886), according to the May 2017 survey.
  • Contract company workers earned a median weekly wage of $1,077, the highest amongst alternative workers. Earnings for independent contractors ($851) were comparable to those of traditional workers ($884). On-call ($797) and temporary help agency workers ($521) earned less than other alternative workers.

Several reasons may have contributed to the relative continuity in workforce rates between the 2005 and 2017 surveys:

  • These latest figures did not include results from four new BLS questions covering job solicitation and payment through websites and mobile apps (electronically-mediated employment). BLS continues to analyze those data and expects to release those figures by the end of September 2018. With the increasing use of services such as Uber and Lyft, and online job platforms such as “Task Rabbit,” the results should interest those following debates about the “future of work.”
  • BLS conducted its 2005 contingent worker survey in the month of February. Because BLS conducted this latest survey in May, the demand for seasonal work may have affected the results, although the significance of this impact is uncertain.
  • The survey asked respondents to address the jobs for which they worked the most hours. Therefore, contingent and alternative work would have missed the cut in instances where workers spent most of their hours in traditional employment, but still held an alternative or contingent job “on the side” – as a way to make some extra money to supplement their main employment income.

Given current funding, BLS has no definite plans to conduct a similar survey in the future. This is one of the reasons WDQC has often joined other organizations in calling for BLS’s funding to at least keep pace with inflation.

For more information about the different categories of contingent and alternative workers, and more detailed data broken down by key demographic groups, visit the BLS’s Economic News Release webpage on Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements.