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1% of US workforce in ‘electronically mediated’ work, but questions flawed: BLS

October 03, 2018

he US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that 1.0% of the total workforce was an “electronically mediated” worker — someone who does work through an online app that matched them with clients and handled payment for a total of 1.6 million workers. Staffing Industry Analysts refers to these workers as human cloud workers. The bureau’s announcement comes as a follow-up to its report on the US contingent workforce released in June.

SIA has estimated a higher number of human cloud workers. And the bureau’s report in June drew questions over its count of contingent workers with some citing inconsistency with other measures.

In September’s announcement, the bureau reported the percent of workers doing on-site work through a human cloud platform represented 0.6% of US workers in May 2017 — the month under measure — for 990,000 workers. The number of workers doing online-only work for a human cloud platform was 0.5% of the total workforce, or 701,000 people.

However, the BLS put shade on its numbers, saying the survey questions included two that proved difficult for those taking the survey to understand, leading to a large number of people who answered they were a human cloud worker when they weren’t. The BLS went back and recoded the survey data to get the 1.0% number.

“In general, both questions appear to have been too complicated,” according to the bureau’s report. Many respondents answered yes when not all the conditions were met to prove they worked through a human cloud platform.

 “While BLS is confident in estimates of the number of people who did electronically mediated work for their main job, the number of people who did this work for a second job or for additional work for pay may be overstated,” according to the report. “Because the team could not recode as many second-job cases or any additional-work-for-pay cases, percent distributions from the ‘which job’ questions should be viewed with caution.”

The report said the bureau should not again use the same questions; it would need to substantially revise the questions before using in a future survey.

Here are the results of the recoded survey from May 2017 (in thousands):

Characteristic Total employed Electronically mediated workers
Total In person Online Percent of total employed
Total In person Online
               
Total, 16 years and over 153,331 1,609 990 701 1.0 0.6 0.5
   Men 81,545 870 534 370 1.1 0.7 0.5
   Women 71,785 739 456 331 1.0 0.6 0.5

Here are the survey questions that caused confusion:

Intro: “I now have a few questions related to how the internet and mobile apps have led to new types of work arrangements. I will ask first about tasks that are done in person and then about tasks that are done entirely online.”

  1. “Some people find short, IN-PERSON tasks or jobs through companies that connect them directly with customers using a website or mobile app. These companies also coordinate payment for the service through the app or website. For example, using your own car to drive people from one place to another, delivering something, or doing someone’s household tasks or errands. Does this describe ANY work (you/NAME) did LAST WEEK?”
    • If yes, the second part of the question was asked: “Was that for (your/NAME’s) (job/(main job, (your/NAME’s) second job)) or (other) additional work for pay?”
  2. “Some people select short, ONLINE tasks or projects through companies that maintain lists that are accessed through an app or a website. These tasks are done entirely online, and the companies coordinate payment for the work. For example, data entry, translating text, web or software development, or graphic design. Does this describe ANY work (you/NAME) did LAST WEEK?”
    • If yes, the second part of the question was asked: “Was that for (your/NAME’s) (job/(main job, (your/NAME’s) second job)) or (other) additional work for pay?

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