Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain organized workers to demand fair pay. A new study sponsored by the company says grocery stores have added thousands of jobs thanks to Instacart.

Photo: Nick Otto/Washington Post via Getty Images
 Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain

One problem with regulating gig work: We’re bad at measuring it

Stats released by companies and worker advocates fill a vacuum, as politicians debate far-reaching rules.

Instacart has about 1,000 full-time employees, plus another 12,000 part-time employees. At last count, it contracted 130,000 people to buy and deliver groceries, a spokesperson said. And according to a new study, Instacart's growth was "associated with" grocery stores adding another 23,000 jobs in four states last year to keep up with the on-demand orders.

If you think regulating the gig economy is hard, try measuring it. The numbers are sporadic and often murky — a big problem now that politicians in California, Washington and beyond are debating new rules for contractors who earn money from tech platforms like Instacart, DoorDash, Uber and Lyft.

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"There is not a shortage of data sources," said Shelly Steward, research manager for the Aspen Institute's Future of Work Initiative, a nonpartisan effort to help modernize employment policy. "There's a shortage of clear understanding from that data."

The Instacart figures appear to paint a powerful picture of job-creation — but perhaps a limited one. The study was sponsored by Instacart and compared information from the company with detailed Census employment data, estimating a before-and-after bump dubbed the "Instacart effect."

Labor researchers have warned for years that federal agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau aren't set up to capture the country's increasingly nebulous job market, even though the data can guide policy, move the stock market and determine who's eligible for benefits like unemployment.

Into the void have stepped not-so-impartial sources: gig companies attempting to play up their own economic virtues, and worker advocacy groups pushing to reclassify contractors as employees, raise the minimum wage and make benefits "portable" between different jobs.

Instacart commissioned its new report to show how gig economy startups affect employment in industries they're disrupting, said author Robert Kulick of Nera Economic Consulting. The 30-page report, packed with graphs, charts and statistical models, found that rather than cannibalizing grocery stores, Instacart added $620 million in "incremental retail grocery revenue." Instacart's delivery service, Kulick wrote, helps grocery stores retain loyal customers and attract new ones, creating jobs in the process.

Though he cautions that the study is tailored to Instacart and "doesn't get into specific policy prescriptions," Kulick said policymakers "need to consider linkages in local economies."

Meanwhile, Latino rights advocacy group UnidosUS released its own report this week on work in the gig economy, which found that Latinos are joining the contract workforce en masse. About 40% of the nearly 1,000 workers surveyed had done gig work, and more than half of those people already had a full-time job. While gig work can lower barriers to entry for workers to earn extra money, the survey also showed that due to low wages and elusive benefits, "It's not enough," said UnidosUS Senior Policy Analyst Victoria Melendez.

"This is something that's moving very quickly," Melendez said. "We need to make sure that protections hasten to meet the speed of these new technologies."

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics is doing the counting, gig workers are identified as "contingent workers," "alternative workers" or both. In recent decades, data for these categories has only been tallied every 10 years or so, and funding to make it more regular remains elusive. The result is something of a bureaucratic existential crisis: "Are the words 'work' and 'job' too limiting for surveys?" the agency pondered in one research brief.

Last year, the Federal Reserve estimated that just under one-third of workers had done some form of gig work — but the net was wide, including "informal, infrequent paid activities" that ranged from driving for Uber to babysitting, cleaning houses or renting out a room.

At the Aspen Institute, Steward is working with researchers from Cornell to build a "Gig Economy Data Hub" to help make sense of the flood of partial numbers from public agencies, companies and a wide range of labor groups and think tanks. She's hopeful that state and federal agencies will invest in collecting more holistic numbers. "Policy can create better data collection," Steward said.

These numbers could become more important in states like Washington, Georgia and Massachusetts, where policymakers are considering measures to expand portable benefits to gig workers. In California, lawsuits and advocacy campaigns are flying over the state's Assembly Bill 5, which could force tech companies to reclassify hundreds of thousands of independent contractors as employees.

Still, Melendez said, history and context matter. It's not like working side jobs outside the purview of the government is exactly a new phenomenon.

"There's all these word-of-mouth things that go on, and now, because it's being technologized, it matters," Melendez said. "People of color, especially Latinos, have been doing it for a very long time."

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