When Helen Lee of Middleton decided to bring in some money to supplement her husband’s salary, she turned to freelance work as a business consultant. And, she became part of an emerging economic sector in the U.S.: the gig economy.
Lee says the flexibility is what drew her to the freelance world, and she hasn’t looked back.
“It’s not only the timing of projects, but it’s also that I can work at my desk or go upstairs and work at the dining room table,” Lee says. “If my kid wants to go play golf, I can go sit in the bar and work.”
In a gig economy, temporary, flexible jobs are common and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees. That’s a far different model than the traditional economy of full-time workers, who rarely change positions and instead focus on a lifetime career.
Technically, a gig worker is someone who uses a digital “platform,” such as a ridesharing app or a handyman app—in short, a platform with a brand—to get work, according to Jill Pedigo, a labor and employment attorney with von Briesen & Roper in Madison. But, like Lee, many freelance and independent workers consider themselves part of the gig economy.
“I’m looking at this kind of technically because the gig economy is really the on-demand economy,” Pedigo says. The distinction is indeed muddy, because even without a branded platform, each of those categories of workers have one thing in common: They don’t have some of the perks and some of the protections, such as being covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers compensation if they get hurt on the job or unemployment insurance, that traditional, permanent workers enjoy, Pedigo says.
Though the idea may appeal to anyone, local experts say female workers might especially seek out and enjoy the ability to mold their job to their lives, rather than vice versa.
Retired UW-Madison business professor Patricia Mullins, who for years studied career development and work-life balance, points out that self-employment has always been around; there are just more ways to do so with modern technology.
Why Gigging Works for Women
Mullins defines three categories of women who typically go into free- lance or contract work: At-home parents looking to fill their free time and continue their skills or learn new ones; those who want income to supplement the salary of their spouse, who already carries the benefits of a traditional job; and those who are working multiple jobs and picking up side gigs to support their family on one income.
The ability to set her own hours and work remotely allows women to “have it all”—both stay home with the kids and maintain the skills and connections necessary for a career. “For a long time, day care was the only option for us as working women, and now there is more of an option with the gig economy,” Mullins says.
With the influx of service and delivery apps, Mullins says “somebody has to perform those services, and a lot of people will continue to work who may not have.” She points out that with shopping apps, Uber and seasonal retail work, even women with just a high school education can contribute to the family income, while maintaining the flexibility to care for children or aging parents.
It works better for some than for others though. “The women who have always had to work to support themselves and/or their families have always been there, but we tend to forget about them,” Mullins says. “For them, there’s a big disadvantage to the gig economy. There’s job insecurity, no benefits, no health care, no retirement. For them, it may be more of a necessity.”
Because of these downsides, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner has introduced federal legislation to support gig workers by giving tax credits to businesses that formally train workers, allowing employers to contribute pre-tax dollars to a training fund, funding a grant program to develop portable benefits like health care and paid sick leave for workers, and making it easier for non-full-time employees to get mortgages.
It’s a recognition of a growing economic force in America, in which some 25% of millennial workers are part of the gig economy, according to a report by Prudential, while 15% of Gen-Xers and 9% of baby boomers participate in that economic sector.
Mullins herself says she’s participated in the burgeoning sector, working on several projects since she retired.
“It’s a nice transition, especially if you like working and don’t want to just sit back in a rocking chair,” she says.
While not always having a steady paycheck may be a downside, flexibility and autonomy are significant upsides to “gigging.”
“Feed Your Passion and Purpose”
Amber Swenor and her husband both found the traditional employment structure to be too rigid to allow them to pursue outside interests. “Personally, prior to starting my company, I had other passions and desired to pursue them but wasn’t able to in the confines of a traditional workplace culture with the typical hours, two weeks’ time off, no additional unpaid time off. I wasn’t expecting paid time off but just a bit more flexibility,” says Swenor, who now owns a marketing firm and fronts a heavy-metal band.
Recently while job searching, her husband had multiple offers but companies were not able to offer flexibility or unpaid time off. He turned down a job with benefits in favor of a position that allowed him to work as an independent contractor so he could take the time needed to pursue his work as a musician. “It’s not worth giving up the things that make you human and feed your passion and purpose, just to have company sponsored health insurance; we’ve chosen to pay for our own benefits and find ways to get by,” Swenor says. Experienced giggers know that they’ve got to take care of some things without the benefit of employer help, such as funding 100% of any 401Ks, and potentially purchasing their own health insurance.
Those new to the game should keep those facts in mind, says Summit Credit Union Financial Advisor David Solheim.
Solheim says that youth is a boon for the new entrants into the gig economy workforce.
“Time is a very valuable asset in investing and saving,” he says. “There’s no cheaper time to buy insurance than when you’re young be- cause you’ve got a longer time to live so premiums are cheaper.”
Those who miss the daily tête-à-tête around the office water cooler can find kinship in like-minded groups.
One of the biggest sources of support for fledgling gig workers, thinks Lee, are networking events and Facebook groups, such as Madison Freelancers, which started around five years ago as a meet-up group by local website developer Matt Nelson and has reached 600 members. His group serves as a place for freelancers to learn from experts, network with others and just be around people who understand the lifestyle they’ve chosen.
“I’ve heard it called a combination of church and therapy,” Nelson says of his monthly meetups, which are tied to the national Freelancers Union, a free organization people can join for resources on tax information, benefit options and much more.
Also on the rise in Madison are co-working spaces, with more than a half-dozen available right now, where independent workers can rent equipment, a desk or a whole office. Plus, they’ll find the camaraderie of other professionals—something you lose when you’re not in an office full of other employees in the same company.
Even if the connections you make aren’t in your field, Lee thinks they can lead not just to a job but perhaps to learning from a new perspective.
Illustrated by Ann Christianson