The monthly jobs report doesn’t capture all work. Here’s the data we should be collecting

April 12, 2022, 1:37 PM UTC
As the share of app-based work continues to grow, the way we collect data about jobs in the economy needs to change.
Michael Nagle—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in how Americans are engaging with work, with more people opting for self-employment even amidst a global pandemic.

Despite this rise in entrepreneurship and supplemental work being done around full-time obligations and employment (some 16% to 35% of the U.S. workforce are estimated to have earned money on a gig platform), quantifying and understanding the economic realities of these so-called “gig workers” remains elusive.

We have the benefit of information about our platform, but economy-wide data is sparse. Over the last decade, app-based, on-demand technology platforms have become ubiquitous. But just how many people work on these platforms and how much work they do is anyone’s guess.

That’s because the government, for the most part, does not consider this type of work in its ongoing labor surveys. Without reliable data, policymakers are effectively flying blind while considering new laws and regulations that impact these workers.

Outdated methodologies

In February, Senators Mark Warner and Sherrod Brown called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to require companies to disclose information about the number of independent contractors they work with on a regular basis.

The senators are right, and we applaud them for it, but we also believe the call should go even further to truly comprehend how people are working on platforms like DoorDash.

To be sure, this type of activity that we enable diverges from traditional notions of “work.”

Technology makes work, like the opportunities we provide, easier to access and uniquely flexible. Workers come and go frequently, complete different types of tasks, typically have other jobs or sources of income, and often work across multiple platforms.

The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which conducts and releases monthly survey data about the US labor market, does not regularly ask about this kind of work.

Constrained in part by lack of funding, BLS has relied on outdated methodologies that reflect the traditional employee-employer system. When they do occasionally ask about supplemental work, such as in the last BLS report on this topic (released in 2018), their approach has been criticized as inaccurate and using outdated methodology.

To the surprise of many, it showed a slight decrease in the percent of American workers who are choosing flexible work arrangements since 2005, the last time BLS conducted the survey, despite the advent of technology platforms to make this type of work far more accessible. In fact, DoorDash and many of the largest app-based platforms weren’t even founded until many years later.

To the Bureau’s credit, it has acknowledged these methodological shortcomings and expressed an appetite to improve data collection methods to better understand this workforce. It has even requested additional funding each year since 2012 to conduct more regular surveys of supplemental work, but Congress has yet to approve it.

DoorDash already discloses the number of Dashers–the delivery workers on the platform–in our quarterly reports to shareholders. Over three million people dashed in the fourth quarter of 2021, and over six million Dashers used the platform in 2021.

While we believe companies working with independent contractors should all do the same, reporting data solely on the number of active workers on a platform fails to paint a full picture of this growing workforce and its economic impact. Companies should also disclose the total number of hours worked by independent contractors on their platform because to understand this workforce, we need a richer understanding of how this work fits into their lives. 

The nature of app-based work

Here’s what we do know based on our survey data: The vast majority of Dashers have other job, educational, or personal responsibilities beyond app-based work and are using our platform because they work for small increments of time, mixing and matching earning opportunities to fit their schedule.

Dashers are working overwhelmingly part time–even compared to other platforms–on average making deliveries fewer than four hours a week. A parent may make deliveries six hours per week while their kids are at school. A teacher may drive on a rideshare platform for six hours per day during spring break. A student may work on a grocery delivery platform six hours per weekend to make spending money. Sharing the total hours worked by independent contractors would show how they’re working and would help inform policies that speak to the flexible, part-time nature of platform work.

The flexibility to craft their own schedule and be their own boss explains why our survey found that 90% of Dashers want to remain independent contractors. Policies should reflect what these workers want and address the economic challenges they face. We need accurate data to build meaningful policies that serve this segment of workers.

We know too many Americans lack access to benefits, and we’ve long supported a portable, proportional, and flexible framework that is easy to access and allows app-based workers to maintain their independence, while also providing new benefits. We’ve shared our perspective in a recent white paper, outlining our vision to ensure all workers have access to work quickly and with low barriers to entry, the choice to work how they want, and security through benefits and protections.

Consistent and accurate data is critical for the government to make informed policy decisions. Without accurate data, policies could have a negative impact for years to come.

Setting aside arguments over the value of app-based work, we should all agree that collecting better data about the size and impact of this rapidly growing sector of our labor market is a worthwhile endeavor.

Christopher Payne is the president of DoorDash

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