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When we think back on the pandemic and try to summon a single flashbulb memory of this weird time, we may find ourselves conjuring up mental images of silhouetted food delivery couriers schlepping boxy backpacks as they navigate electric bikes through deserted streets.

Christie Vuong/The Globe and Mail

Global delivery service platforms like UberEats, Foodora and DoorDash not only generated vast new revenues during the lockdown months; they also provided gig work for thousands of people.

The gig economy, of course, garnered plenty of attention before the pandemic, as the proliferation of platforms during the 2010s created new digital marketplaces that cut out the organizational middleman. Fearing the demise of conventional labour-employer relationships, some jurisdictions, like California, pushed to regulate platforms or extend benefits to gig workers. Unionizing drives generated sound and light, if not successful certification votes.

Through it all, the ranks of gig workers have crept steadily upward, now accounting for almost 10% of the labour force (or two-million workers), up from just 5.5% in 2005, according to Statistics Canada. In the U.S., the figure is one-fifth, and is predicted to grow to more than 40%.

Yet, as Erin Reid, an associate professor at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business, points out, the gig labour force is far more varied than food deliverers and rideshare drivers. “There are a lot of other people involved, too,” she says. “Some people work in the gig economy because they like having control over what they do. Others are working there because organizations aren’t offering great jobs.”

Partly spurred by the pandemic, policy makers and corporate leaders now strive to understand the needs of gig workers. But both their growing numbers and their stereotype-breaking jobs defy simple solutions.

Reid’s research attests to the breadth of the gig labour force. Artists, designers, writers, some trades people and various professionals, including accountants—all operating independently—have long referred to themselves as freelancers, contractors or consultants. This predates the 2010s, when “gig” became a watchword for precarity.

Reid, whose field is human resources, set out to identify the challenges facing gig workers during the pandemic. The findings were based on a series of surveys with a range of workers, from people who take on micro tasks from Amazon to consulting scientists who source their gigs on platforms like Kolabtree, which brokers projects to technical experts.

The prevailing concerns in-cluded financial stability, of course, but also dealing with administrative and logistical tasks, establishing work identities, navigating uncertain career paths, managing stress fuelled by instability and maintaining work relationships without a regular cohort of office colleagues. (Lousy weather and flat tires weren’t on their list.)

What confounds the policy makers is that the gig labour force includes employed people doing side hustles as well as those who are permanently self-employed. In terms of the former, a substantial number of gig workers in Canada earn less than $5,000 a year from short-term jobs, with more than half of those also filing one or more T4s. Others only report self-employment income for short periods, suggesting these gigs are in fact transitional. As for the intentionally self-employed, 2016 census data showed that more than a third of these gig workers reported incomes in the top two quintiles (i.e., $95,000 and above for 2020).

The latter statistic explains why organizations that might not be especially interested in bike couriers are suddenly paying attention to the gig economy. For instance, BMO Nesbitt Burns is focusing some of its wealth management marketing on gig workers who are actually doing quite well and may be in need of some more sophisticated investment products. And earlier this year, Payments Canada served up some of its own marketing research, making a case for improving payments options for people taking on short-term contracts.

Yet for HR experts like Reid, the emergent issues facing this growing slice of the labour force have more to do with what it means to forge a professional identity and that establish work relationships in the absence of an office and a contract.

Traditional work ideas, like advancing through an organization or up a career ladder, tend to be more elusive, says Reid, and so is the emotional stability that comes from not having to scramble for each new contract or gig, especially in a global economic crisis.

In the case of several hundred consulting scientists whom Reid’s group surveyed, many did contend with a decline in paying jobs during the first year of the pandemic. But, as Reid notes, there was a surprising counter-factual in their findings. Before COVID-19, “we found that these workers definitely experienced this identity challenge, of not really being able to explain who they are and what they do. But during the pandemic, this identity challenge went away.”

Perhaps the fact that so many people were suddenly experiencing the dressed-down freelance/side-hustle lifestyle of working from home without office mates and a bus pass meant those who had actually lived that life no longer felt like labour market outcasts.

The shift in public awareness about gig life during the pandemic may also produce legislation and regulation acknowledging that the traditional employee-employer relationship is no longer as binary as it once was. Earlier this year, for example, both the federal Liberals and Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives proposed reforms designed to make gig work less Darwinian, such as adding EI eligibility, increasing minimum wages and offering protection against punishing labour practices. Indeed, freelancer unions and gig worker associations elsewhere are pressing hard for rules that would require firms to guarantee contractors a minimum number of hours, provide benefits or reimburse them for work-related expenses.

Recent labour shortages in several heavily outsourced professions, including nursing and health care, along with increasing turnover in the workforce, will drive additional improvements for gig workers, according to Reid. “I think labour is going to have more power than it used to,” she says.

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