The gig economy has boomed over the past few decades. In the early 2000’s the possibilities for gig work and side hustles expanded alongside technological advancements. During the Great Recession of 2008, many workers looked to gig work to help make ends meet. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) describes gig work as alternative work arrangements such as independent contracting, on-call arrangements, and employment arrangements through agencies. By 2018, an estimated 29% of workers in the US had an “alternative work arrangement” as their primary job. This number jumped from just 11% in 2005 (Gallup Organization, 2018.) Many workers are continuing to trade what some consider traditional job security for the flexibility of choosing their own hours, location, and projects. Unfortunately, workers who are employed in the gig work economy report more health issues than their salaried peers, according to a new analysis.
Researchers from the University of Texas Health Houston looked at data from the 2008-2019 IPUMS Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which covers “the time-period from the start of the modern gig economy through the most recent data.” Survey responses to health-related questions were collected from approximately 30,000 participants per round, with five survey rounds conducted. The key independent variable in the study was how each respondent was being paid. Response options included piece rate pay (PRP), hourly pay, daily pay, or annual salary. Annual salary served as the reference, whereas PRP is the typical compensation model of the modern gig economy.
The respondents who had insecure income from gig work reported a 50% increase in poor overall health and psychological distress than the respondents who were salaried workers. Higher hourly pay rates and socioeconomic factors reduced the association between gig work and poor health but didn’t eliminate it. Despite those factors, increased health risks remained constant, especially for women, those without a college degree, financially stressed workers, and non-white-collar workers. Additionally, Hispanic, and Black workers who earned insecure income were more likely to report poorer health than their white counterparts.
The analysis included only pre-pandemic data. Researchers, however, also pointed out that additional research is necessary to assess the possible health outcomes of gig workers during COVID-19. With the correlation between insecure income work and the increase of workers’ sense of poor health, the added stress of a pandemic will likely cause a greater increase of adverse health effects.
Co-authors, led by School of Public Health alumnus Robert Thomas, PhD, JD, MBA, included Gretchen Gemeinhardt, PhD, associate professor of management policy and community health; Paula Cuccaro, PhD, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences; and John Davis. Thomas is also immediate past commissioner of the Texas Workforce Commission.
“The longer-term economic burden will ultimately be passed onto the U.S. consumer as we see increases in worker shortages, increases in prices from gig companies, and increases in unreimbursed health care utilization,” Thomas said. “It is reasonable to project that the U.S. taxpayer will pay more for uninsured chronic morbidity care of uninsured U.S. workers who are paid an insecure income.”
The analysis published in the September 2022 issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine is available online.