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Freelancing Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Author: Sawyer, S., Dunn, M., Munoz, I., Stephany, F., Raheja, R., Vaccaro, G., & Lehdonvirta, V.
Published in:
Year: 2020
Type: Working paper

We combine market-level data about changes in jobs offered via online work platforms and interviews with freelance workers who use one online work platform, to report on online freelance workers’ initial responses to the novel coronavirus’s economic impacts in the United States (U.S.). We pursue this work recognizing that as the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, the implications to workers and labor markets are profound. That is, even conservative estimates of the global outbreak foresee significant global macroeconomic impacts (Atkeson, 2020; McKibben & Fernando, 2020). Early research reports highlight demographic and market differences due these changes (e.g., Wenham et al., 2020; Stephany et al., 2020).Online freelancers and the online labor markets where they seek work are a relatively recent subset of labor markets. To this point, the global market for online labor has grown approximately 50% over the past three years, with an estimated 56 million online freelancers globally (Kässi & Lehdonvirta, 2018; Stephany & Kässi, 2020). These markets are seen by many as both a means to provide opportunities for workers seeking flexible employment arrangements – short term ‘gigs’ – and for organizations to help absorb market shocks (Gray and Suri, 2019; Kalleberg, 2003; Lehdonvirta et al., 2019). Freelancing is project-based: there is little commitment between employer and worker beyond the specifics of the project’s contract (Wood et al., 2019). Seeking this work online makes them susceptible to greater competition by reducing barriers for other workers to enter and compete (Dunn, 2017). In countries like the U.S., online freelancers are independent contractors. This means they lack benefits like health care, retirement, leave, and other workplace protections afforded full-time workers (ILO, 2016; McKay et al., 2019). So, what are the experiences and expectations of online freelance workers in the face of rapid market changes and the uncertainty of an ongoing global pandemic? What do precarious workers do when their working lives and working arrangements become more precarious?Responding to these questions, this paper is developed in five sections. Next, we provide an overview of online labor markets and online freelance work, followed by a second section where we highlight the contrasting potential effects of the pandemic. Sections three and four contain insights drawn from market-level data about online freelance labor, and insights drawn from an ongoing panel study of freelance workers in the U.S. The final section contains a discussion of these findings, followed by some contemporary conclusions.

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