What is the Gig Economy?
From the Lyft and Uber drivers zipping along our thoroughfares to neighboring homes morphing into Airbnb rentals to a vibrant startup culture that inspired Amazon to rank Colorado fourth on a list of the top 10 states for entrepreneurial-ness, the gig economy seems to be everywhere in the Centennial State. That really shouldn’t be a surprise: The flexibility associated with gig work fits snugly with our lifestyle, a spontaneous, get-outside-whenever-you-can, work-to-live-don’t-live-to-work modus vivendi that’s recently drawn so many transplants inside our rectangular borders. It wouldn’t be far-fetched, then, for the typical 9-to-5er, procrastinating in a cube in an office tower downtown, to feel that everyone else is living—and loving—the gig life.
It’d be difficult to tell him he’s wrong. But it’d be equally challenging to tell him he’s right. Because there isn’t one agreed-upon definition for this contemporary workforce—usually characterized by independent workers who contract with companies on a task-by-task basis, typically via digital means—the size and scope of it are unclear. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently approximated that various “alternative work arrangements” make up 10.1 percent of the country’s labor force. That statistic suggests around 313,100 Coloradans, out of a labor pool of more than three million, are giggers. (Some experts, using different definitions, would put the Colorado gig economy closer to 31,000.) “It’s fuzzy ground,” says Ryan Gedney, senior economist at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. “There’s this ubiquitous ‘gig economy’ term, which for some represents all kinds of nontraditional employment. For others, it just represents Uber or Lyft.”
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The gig economy, for as much attention as it’s getting in 2018, isn’t new. Newsboys in the late 1800s, your dog walker, the temporary receptionist at your office: Today the government would qualify all of them as having so-called “alternative work arrangements.” What’s changed in the 21st century is technology. The ease of connecting and the ability to work from anywhere, combined with millennials’ push for elastic hours and a better work-life balance, have brought gig work into the mainstream and provided frustrated cube-dwellers with an outlet for making a paycheck, despite the baked-in instability, the frustrating lack of benefits, and the absence of typical workplace protections.
Regardless of whether or not the statistics reflect it, the gig economy is having an impact. According to “Freelancing in America: 2017,” an analysis of 6,000 U.S. workers commissioned by Upwork (an online platform that connects businesses with contractors) and Freelancers Union, freelancers contribute more than $1 trillion annually to our nation’s economy. What’s more: The freelance workforce is growing at three times the rate of the overall U.S. workforce, which means however the government wants to count it, you’re going to be encountering this newfangled enterprise—as a gigger or as an employer of one—sooner rather than later. Here’s what you need to know before that future arrives.
Contingent workforce: Labor hired by companies or organizations on an on-demand basis. The work is typically part time, and payment is made on a per-project basis.
Alternative work arrangements: Government- and economist-speak for almost any work setup that doesn’t encompass full-time employees. Independent contractors, freelancers, on-call workers, and temps can fall into this category.
Sharing economy:A form of commerce in which resources or services are shared between individuals, usually via digital means (e.g., Etsy, Airbnb, Car2Go, and ThredUp). Also called the collaborative economy or peer economy.
Workplace protections:Laws and benefits—like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, minimum wage, overtime, and workers’ compensation—that are afforded to typical full-time workers but that do not apply to most gig work.
What Does Gig Work Look Like in Real Life?
Name: Aubrey Gordon
Title: President, Sprocket Communications
When Aubrey Gordon opened her boutique public relations firm in 2007, her hiring process was fairly standard: As she took on more clients, she’d hire more employees and contract with consultants when necessary. Soon enough, though, Sprocket was growing too quickly, and Gordon needed to be able to hire people faster—and with a wider range of specialized knowledge.
About five years ago, she decided to enter the realm of the gig economy. She and her former business partner became the only full-time employees, she shifted two of her staffers to contract positions, and she concentrated on growing her stable of freelancers. Over subsequent years, Gordon hired a few more full-timers but focused on collaborating with contractors who had niche skills. Today, Sprocket works with 16 freelance account reps.
The format has positives and negatives. Sprocket’s contractors aren’t on payroll and don’t receive traditional benefits, which can help a business’ bottom line—to a degree. “Employers can save payroll taxes and some benefits, but gig workers tend to be transient,” says Scott Moss, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. “Switching from full-time employees to gig contractors can yield an upfront savings but cost a lot in turnover.” The business model also means Gordon doesn’t have a large team of people who are dedicated solely to her company.
As for the contractors, they’re free to take on non-Sprocket clients and/or work with other agencies. They also set their own rates. But the work can be stressful: Projects can be fickle, and clients sometimes come and go without much warning.
Gordon does her best to match contractors with clients that fit their industry expertises and “keep everyone working as much as possible.” She’s found that despite some of the challenges, the flexibility of this model trumps everything else. Says Gordon: “The freedom in our work
environment actually makes people happier and more productive.”
Name: David Napoli
Title: Senior consultant (analytics and data visualization); part-time instructor, University of Colorado Boulder and General Assembly Denver
David Napoli didn’t seek out gig work; it found him. After spending two decades in Colorado’s traditional workforce—as an analytics expert—Napoli felt called toward a less conventional workday. The first unignorable pull came a couple of years ago when a co-worker approached him about teaching classes at General Assembly Denver, a private education organization focused on 21st-century skills. It was less than a part-time position—he’d teach a class here and there—but the challenge intrigued him. When the students responded positively to his lectures, Napoli decided teaching was the direction he wanted to take his career. “I saw I could make a difference,” he says, “and start that passion [for analytics] in others.”
Still, quitting his full-time job wasn’t a legitimate possibility until this past summer when he found out about a part-time opening in the University of Colorado Boulder’s master’s in business analytics program. At that point, the gentle tug of teaching became a full-on yank, and he decided to leave his analytics job even though the new, single-class position offered no promise of future opportunities.
Both of Napoli’s teaching jobs were part time, and neither came with benefits, so he’s been supplementing his income by building a consulting business. “The biggest challenge has been finding enough work to provide the same financial support for my family,” he says. He sustained a 10 percent pay cut when he followed his light-bulb moment into the gig world, but inconsistent work has resulted in a 50 percent hit in some months. “It’s a lot of conversations at this point—little dribs and drabs of work,” he says of the consulting business, but he’s optimistic about the future.
He’s also ecstatic about the change in his commute: Napoli us
ed to drive about three hours a day to and from his full-time job. Now he hops out of bed and gets right to work from his home office in Arvada. His twice-weekly trek to General Assembly? About 60 minutes round-trip.
The Side Hustler
Name: Amber Blais
Title: Co-founder, Raconteur Denver; co-founder, Rainbow Militia
It makes sense that Amber Blais was drawn to the circus life: The woman knows how to juggle. But we’re not talking about multicolored balls or chainsaws here; Blais knows how to handle a tricky schedule. She spent more than five years as the communications manager for Wonderbound, a local contemporary dance troupe, and in her limited hours outside of work, she launched two creative enterprises. Raconteur Denver is a free bimonthly storytelling series held around town (mostly at coffeeshops and bars) à la New York City’s the Moth; Rainbow Militia, which Blais co-founded, is a circus collective that performs collaborative productions with local musicians and artists. “[Those endeavors] took up pretty much all of my free time,” she says. “There were times my friends would ask me to do things, and I would say no because I was working on my passion projects.”
Both ventures were artistic outlets for Blais and a way for her to connect with the local creative community outside of her job as a marketer; she wasn’t trying to make money (and her day job meant she didn’t need the extra income). She relied on apps such as Wunderlist and ColorNote to keep all of her proverbial balls in the air. “You have to be willing to put a lot of hours into it,” she says. Those would be evening hours and early morning hours and weekend hours, because as any side hustler knows, most of her income will continue to come from her full-time job—unless that side hustle starts paying some, if not all, of the bills.
When she started wanting to further stretch her creative muscles this past summer, Blais parted ways with Wonderbound and is now working to turn her secondary pursuits—circus performance, in particular—into something more. Since they aren’t yet bringing in enough to cover day-to-day expenses, Blais is juggling again, taking on contract marketing projects and splitting rent with roommates—all while conceiving Rainbow Militia’s first major production. Zabiti, inspired by Russian folktales, is expected to premiere in August 2019. It’s not easy, and Blais admits it’s a struggle to cobble together a reasonable income. She isn’t giving up though. “I didn’t start off doing the side hustle and thinking I wanted it to be my full-time career…. It was just a fun thing to do and it made me really happy,” Blais says. “I’m running with it.”
The Colorado Factor
Workers give up a lot of stability when they join the gig economy. But for those who live in or have recently moved to the Centennial State for its laid-back, adventure-laden lifestyle, the trade-offs can be more than worth it.
Trade In: Your commute on the A Line—frequent delays included—Monday through Friday.
For: Waking up on the banks of the San Juan River inside an internet-enabled, converted Airstream trailer.
But Keep In Mind: Being physically present with co-workers increases collaboration; it’s why companies like IBM and Yahoo have scaled back their work-from-home policies in recent years.
Trade In: Depressing cubicles and gray conference rooms.
For: Port Side in RiNo—with its yummy lattes, big windows, and free Wi-Fi—where you can tackle your overloaded inbox.
But Keep In Mind: Two lattes and that avocado toast you feel compelled to purchase each time you’re there cost roughly $15—which can add up quickly if you’re a frequent caffeinator.
Trade In: That ridiculous two-week vacation policy.
For: The ability to click “book” on the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s reservation system. The only days available for the hut you want are weekdays, but you’re pretty sure your boss is OK with it.
But Keep In Mind: That unreasonable two-week vacation policy was
probably a paid vacation policy, and your mortgage payment is still due on the first of the month.
Trade In: Long hours dictated by someone else that always seem to cramp your social life.
For: Finishing that proposal after happy hour. It’ll get done today, just not before typical quittin’ time. No reason to be trapped at work when your friends are at the bar planning this weekend’s ski trip.
But Keep In Mind: Performance tends to wane as the day gets long. Your brain fatigues, and your work might not be as sharp as it would’ve been had you completed it earlier in the day.
Where Do Gig Workers Actually Work?
In Search Of Wi-Fi
Contract workers toil differently—and they often require places outside of their homes to conduct business. Luckily, plenty of public spaces in Denver, from libraries to coffeeshops to co-working spaces, are tuned in to this modern workforce and its needs. Here, seven places wired for work.
Neighborhood: Central Business District
Why We Love It: From the living-room-esque feel of the lounge areas to the plethora of plants to the massive windows, 11-month-old Industrious gets what a workspace should look and feel like. Plus, the 24th-floor location makes us feel like we’re C-suite execs—when we really just signed up for the complimentary breakfast.
Why We Love It: What would an office designed by—and for—women look like? Find out at this year-old co-working space in north Denver. Women in Kind offers a variety of office sizes and styles, dedicated play spaces for children, and regular networking events that don’t include way-too-competitive pingpong tournaments.
Catering To (Female) Giggers: You’ll no longer need to wrap yourself in a winter coat in the middle of summer; Women in Kind keeps the thermostat turned to the mid-70s, about five ticks higher than your average workspace. “Typical offices aren’t comfortable for us [women]. The temperature is regulated by men’s bodies,” says Virginia Santy, co-founder of Women in Kind, who explains that both wardrobe and metabolic rates come into play. “When you’re physically uncomfortable, it’s really hard to be good at what you’re doing and concentrate on it. Productivity increases exponentially when you up the temperature for women.”
Why We Love It: Everything here is made fresh—the bread, the in-house roasted coffee, the pastries—and anyone needing a brain break will find something satisfying thanks to a broad selection of gluten-free, vegan, paleo, and vegetarian nibbles. On warm days, the garage doors and cozy patio mean you can enjoy some fresh air even when you’re on deadline (thank you, free Wi-Fi).
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
Why We Love It: Every afternoon, around 3 p.m., this industrial-chic coffeeshop transforms into a bar, meaning freelancers can go from caffeinated pick-me-ups to happy hour beers without moving an inch.
Catering To Giggers: The space was designed with transient workers in mind—i.e., plenty of outlets and a variety of truly comfortable seating areas for those who plan to stay awhile. The recently upgraded Wi-Fi is just a bonus.
Tattered Cover Book Store – Colfax Avenue
Neighborhood: Congress Park
Why We Love It: Surrounding oneself with the masters is a brilliant way to find some much-needed inspiration. Thanks to worn-in chairs, free Wi-Fi, garage parking (no fighting the meter maids!), and accessible outlets, this beloved Denver institution is way more than just a bookstore and cafe—it’s a quiet haven for busy next-gen-ers.
Neighborhood: Golden Triangle
Why We Love It: It houses the SM Energy IdeaLab, a free community space (no library card required) for makers. Digital creatives will particularly enjoy access to the full Adobe Creative Suite, a pricey product available on the library’s computers at no cost. The Denver Public Library system is working on expanding the IdeaLab concept to other libraries, so check its website for more details, including hours and specific tools available at each site.
Why We Love It: This development is best-known for housing the Maven Hotel and the Denver Milk Market, but it’s the lobby that really appeals to us. Sage Hospitality designed it to be a third space for guests and locals alike. Sunlight streams onto the community table (outlets included) through skylights, and the Wi-Fi is speedy enough to stream video.
Catering To Giggers: All work and no food makes for a less-than-productive morning. Luckily, Sage thoughtfully curated the lobby’s vendors with hungry freelancers in mind. There are to-go breakfast burritos available from Kachina Cantina’s indoor Airstream trailer as well as plenty of caffeinated options (and delectable snacks) steps away at Huckleberry Roasters.
Approximate monthly price for a “dedicated desk”—a work area in an open environment held just for you—at a Denver-area co-working space. Private offices start around $625. While perks like IT support, printing services, fast Wi-Fi, phone rooms, and unlimited fresh-fruit water are included, the monthly outlay can make your kitchen table look a lot more enticing.
The Perils of WFH
Attempting to be productive outside a traditional office.
The laundry is done, the bed is made, and the dishes have been cleaned. Even my email inbox is under control. Tomorrow’s deadline, however, remains unchecked on my to-do list.
When I worked full time at this magazine, I cherished the days when I was diving into a big project and could steal away from the office to work from home. There, I could toil without distractions. I’d breeze through my tasks and feel a sense of accomplishment. I thought getting to do that every day would be one of the biggest benefits of freelance life after I shifted my career two years ago.
I was wrong. Yes, the lack of commute, flexible schedule, and no-makeup-and-sweatpants dress code are undeniable perks, but now that WFH is my MO, I’ve discovered the days I spend entirely at home—no research trips to the library or breakfast meetings—are actually my least productive. I’m focused and efficient at coffeeshops and bookstores, but not from my second bedroom. Over the past 24 months, I’ve tried a variety of tricks: I’ve organized (and reorganized) my schedule in myriad ways. I’ve tested out some common productivity hacks (e.g., the Pomodoro Technique of 25-minute increments of focused work followed by short breaks). Nothing has solved the problem, though, because what I’ve come to realize is that my issue is working alone. Without actual humans to converse with, my phone becomes my water cooler, connecting me with the news and gossip of the day. Instead of taking healthy breaks, like walking around the block, I fall down the social media rabbit hole—or start eyeing that pile of laundry—and lose motivation.
There are certainly benefits to working on your own, but when I look back at my decision to quit my full-time job, I realize I may have been naïve about how difficult shouldering all of that responsibility would be—and how it might affect my productivity. For one, I didn’t consider the pricey office supplies I’d have to buy. Or how much less exciting it is to go to work when “work” is six paces from your bedroom. And I certainly hadn’t thought about how much I’d miss the camaraderie of an office. But one of the upsides of being your own boss is you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to change how you’re doing things. So, I’ll keep tweaking my schedule until I find what works, because I can work whenever and however I choose.
How Does One Thrive in the Gig Economy?
The Fine Print
If you’re transitioning to a contract position, here are four key things to know before making the switch.
Close to 70 percent of the country’s private-sector employees are provided medical benefits through their employers. It’s one of the major perks that alternative workers lose out on. It’s also one of the most complicated aspects of self-employment to figure out. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that passed at the end of 2017 did away with the individual mandate, meaning you’ll no longer have to pay a fine for opting out of health insurance. But as a sole business owner, you’ll only be increasing your headache if a serious illness or injury keeps you from working—and you have to pay substantial health care bills. Quick tip: The most common ways independent contractors get health insurance is through their spouses or domestic partners or the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace (organizations like the national nonprofit Freelancers Union can help you navigate the options).
Saving For Retirement
Remember that 401(k) you were contributing to regularly and your employer was matching? You can say goodbye to that financial boon as a gigger. No, you won’t lose that hard-earned cash, but you will have to make some decisions about what to do with it once you go solo. Step one: Find a financial adviser. It’s possible you can just leave that 401(k) untouched, but you’d likely be forgoing the opportunity to build on that wealth. A financial expert will likely recommend rolling it over—tax-free—into an individual retirement account (IRA). Step two: Develop a savings plan, whether it’s contributing a certain percentage of each paycheck into your new retirement fund or setting aside a certain amount each month and then depositing it as one lump sum at the end of each fiscal year.
Knowing Your Rights
There’s no getting around it: Contract and alternative workers have limited legal rights. They aren’t eligible for workers’ compensation or overtime or insurance or…the list goes on. They also can’t sue for sexual harassment or discrimination or cite the Americans with Disabilities Act in lodging any complaints against those who sign their per-project paychecks. In addition, it’s easy to cross the line from contractor to employee, and if that happens, you need to be ready to either set boundaries or request the benefits that regular employment affords. “Employers have to make sure they’re not trying to have it both ways: declaring these people contractors to avoid all employment regulations and taxes but, on the same hand, trying to wield control,” says CU Boulder’s Scott Moss. He recommends speaking with an employment lawyer or visiting the Department of Labor’s website to learn more about the differences between employees and contractors to make sure you’re staying on the right side of that balance.
Paying Uncle Sam
Once upon a time, you received a paycheck with a dollar amount that already had the standard taxes taken out. Then, sometime around April, you filed your taxes, and any discrepancies in what you’d paid the government and what you’d taken home were ironed out. You either paid more or—joy of joys!—received money back. While the basics are the same, things work a bit differently when you’re a freelancer. For one, if you expect to owe at least $1,000 in taxes, the IRS wants you to pay quarterly estimated taxes. That means four times a year, you guesstimate what your taxes are based on your earnings and pay up (your annual filing is separate). You’ll also want to consider registering as an LLC or an S corporation (for tax and legal purposes), budget for capital expenses each year, and create a system for tracking deductible expenses, such as mileage and home office supplies. Our advice: Hire a certified public accountant post-haste.
Do You Have What It Takes?
Being as honest with yourself as possible, check off the characteristics you embody. If eight of these bullet points apply to you, you might be cut out for the freelance life.
- organized, and time management might as well be my middle name
- proactive and self-motivated. I don’t need a boss hovering over me to get me going on a project–or to finish it on time
- able to do my job remotely
- so over my cubicle and often ask my boss if I can work from home
- confident in my skills
- skilled at juggling multiple duties but can also dedicate my full attention to one task at a time
- passionate about what I do for a living
- young—or young at heart
- persistant and understand that “hustling” has nothing to do with disco moves
By the Numbers
Age 25-34: In 2016, millennials became the largest generation in the labor force, so it’s no surprise that studies done by companies such as business-freelancer connector Upwork show that the age group also comprises the biggest portion of the country’s gig workers. A May 2018 report by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, for example, found that 43 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds participate in the gig economy, the largest representation among age groups.
55+: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ contingent and alternative employment arrangements study—released in June, it’s the most reliable data we currently have—independent contractors are “generally older,” with one in three being 55 or above.
3 in 10: American adults who worked in the gig economy in 2017
18: Percentage of Americans 65 or older who engaged in gig work in 2017
Source: May 2018 report by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Gig-economy-related news you’ll likely see in the not-so-distant future.
Court Decision Provides Clarity on What Makes Someone an Employee
As the gig economy grows and shifts, questions about how to classify workers are going to become more prevalent. In April, a California Supreme Court decision made it more difficult for companies to label workers as contractors—a decision with potentially outsize impacts. According to the New York Times, employees cost businesses 20 to 30 percent more than contractors. Colorado addressed similar confusion in two 2014 state Supreme Court cases, which provided more wiggle room to employers in determining who’s an employee and who’s not.
Are Portable Benefits the Future of Work?
As traditional employment evolves, the age-old method of distributing benefits should too. Or so say supporters of the concept of portable benefits: a system in which workers can access benefits outside of this conventional model and take them from job to job. Legislation setting up this arrangement has been introduced at the federal level as well as in Washington state and California. In Colorado, an optional, statewide retirement plan for those who don’t have access to one through their jobs was introduced via legislation in 2017 and 2018—and fell flat both times.