Frequently asked questions about data on contingent and alternative employment arrangements

Contingent workers are people who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary. They do not have an implicit or explicit contract for ongoing employment.

Alternative employment arrangements include independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, and workers provided by contract firms.

A person's job may be defined as both contingent and an alternative employment arrangement, but this is not automatically the case because contingency is defined separately from the four alternative work arrangements.

 

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1. How were these data collected?

These data were collected through the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS), a special supplemental survey to the May 2017 monthly Current Population Survey (CPS). Similar supplemental surveys were conducted in February of 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2005. See past CWS news releases and articles.

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2. Who was included in the survey?

The Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) was asked of employed people (except unpaid family workers) in the civilian noninstitutional population age 16 and over. Employed people are those who did any work for pay or profit in the week prior to the survey or were temporarily absent from a job. Questions on contingent work and alternative employment arrangements are only asked about a person's main job.

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3. How does the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) define contingent work?

Contingent workers are people who do not expect their jobs to last or who reported that their jobs are temporary. They do not have an implicit or explicit contract for ongoing employment.

People who do not expect their jobs to continue for personal reasons, such as retirement or returning to school, are not considered contingent workers.

Consider the following fictional scenario for an example of a contingent worker.

Kaya was hired by a local company to make decorations to celebrate her town's centennial. The celebration will occur in 2 months, and then Kaya will no longer be needed.

Kaya is a contingent worker because she does not expect her job to last once the anniversary celebration is over.

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4. What are the three estimates of contingent work?

BLS has three increasingly-broad estimates of contingent work.

Three estimates of contingent work
Contingent work Definition

Estimate 1 (narrowest)

     

  • Wage and salary workers only, excluding the self-employed and independent contractors
  • Worked at their current job 1 year or less
  • Do not expect to continue at current job for another year or more

(For temporary help agency workers or contract firm workers, the last two items are based on the company that employs them)

 

Estimate 2

     

  • All workers, including the self-employed and independent contractors
  • Worked at their current job 1 year or less
  • Do not expect to continue at current job for another year or more

(For temporary help agency workers or contract firm workers, the last two items are based on the client to whom they are assigned)

 

Estimate 3 (broadest—used in most BLS analyses)

     

  • Wage and salary workers who do not expect their job to last (even if they have held their current job for more than 1 year and expect to continue at their job for longer than 1 year)
  • Self-employed workers and independent contractors who:
    • Have been self-employed for 1 year or less
    • Do not expect to be self-employed for another year or more

The fictional examples below illustrate the differences between the estimates.

Monique was just hired by a hospital to convert its records to a new electronic records system. The project will be completed in 4 months.

Monique is a contingent worker under all three definitions. She is a wage and salary worker because she is an employee of the hospital. Her job is temporary, so she is contingent under definition 3. Because she has been at her job for less than a year and expects her job to end in 4 months, she is also contingent under definitions 1 and 2.

Mark is a self-employed real estate agent. The major employer in town is relocating to another part of the country and many people are moving out of the area. Mark does not think he will be a real estate agent in a year.

Mark is not contingent under definition 1 because he is self-employed. He is contingent under definitions 2 and 3 because he does not expect to be self-employed for more than a year.

Michael has been an elevator repairman for a local company for the last 3 years. He only expects to work for them for another 2 years because the company's contract with the government will not be renewed.

Michael is not contingent under definitions 1 or 2 because he has worked for the company for longer than 1 year and expects to continue working for them for more than another year. He is contingent under definition 3 because he does not expect his job to last.

More about these definitions, including the questions used to define contingent workers, is available in the October 1996 article Contingent and alternative work arrangements, defined.

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5. Why does BLS have three different definitions of contingent work?

The concept and measurement of contingent work hinges both on the temporary nature of a job and on workers' perception of their job security. A person's assessment of job security can be a subjective measure. Some workers have been in jobs for a short time and do not expect these jobs to last. Others have been in jobs for many years yet still sense that their continued employment is tenuous. Recognizing some of these variations in job characteristics and perceptions regarding job stability, BLS developed 3 estimates of contingent work based on differing assumptions about the degree of attachment workers have to their jobs.

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6. What questions are used to determine whether a person's job is expected to last?

The key factor used to determine if people are contingent workers is whether their job is temporary or not expected to continue. The first questions of the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) are:

  1. Some people are in temporary jobs that last for a limited time or until the completion of a project. Is your job temporary?

  2. Provided the economy does not change and your job performance is adequate, can you continue to work for your current employer as long as you wish?

People who answered either "yes" to the first question or "no" to the second are then asked a series of questions to distinguish workers who are in temporary jobs from those who, for personal reasons, are temporarily holding jobs that offer the opportunity of ongoing employment. A job is defined as being short term or temporary if the person holding it is working only until the completion of a specific project, temporarily replacing another worker, being hired for a fixed time period, filling a seasonal job that is available only during certain times of the year, or if other business conditions dictate that the job is short term. See Exhibit 1 in the October 1996 article Contingent and alternative work arrangements, defined for more information.

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7. What about people who do not expect their jobs to last for personal reasons?

People who do not expect their jobs to last for personal reasons are not considered contingent workers. The survey asks a series of questions to determine why people who are working only temporarily do not expect to stay in those jobs. This is to distinguish people who are in jobs that are structured to be temporary jobs (contingent workers) from those who, for personal reasons, are temporarily holding jobs that offer the opportunity of ongoing employment (noncontingent workers).

For example, Luke just got a job at a restaurant that he could keep year round if he wanted. However, because he attends college 3 hours away, he is only planning to work for the summer.

Luke is not a contingent worker under any definition. While Luke views his job as temporary and intends to leave it for personal reasons at the end of the summer, the job itself is not structured to be temporary and will likely be filled by someone else once he leaves.

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8. Are part-time workers contingent workers?

Not necessarily. Part-time workers are those who usually work less than 35 hours per week. Like all workers, they are only considered contingent workers if their jobs are temporary and not expected to last.

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9. What about people who have more than one job?

The questions about contingent work and alternative employment arrangements are asked only about a person's main job. For people with more than one job, the questions referred to the characteristics of their main job—the job in which they worked the most hours.

For example, Darnell works for the government full time but started teaching part time at a community college this semester. While he would like to continue working for the community college, he is unlikely to be hired next semester.

Darnell is not a contingent worker even though his second job—his teaching job—is temporary. The contingent work questions are only asked about a person's main job—in this case, Darnellís government job.

Mia also started teaching at a community college this semester. She does not think student enrollment will be sufficient for the college to hire her again next semester. Unlike Darnell, Mia only has one job.

Mia is a contingent worker. Her only job is temporary and is not expected to last.

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10. How does BLS define alternative employment arrangements?

BLS publishes data on four different alternative employment arrangements—independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, and workers provided by contract firms. Questions on alternative employment arrangements are only asked about a person's main job.

Alternative employment arrangements
Type of alternative work arrangement Definition

Independent contractors

Independent contractors, consultants, and freelance workers, regardless of whether they are self-employed or wage and salary workers

On-call workers

People who are called into work only when they are needed, although they can be scheduled to work for several days or weeks in a row

Temporary help agency workers

Workers who are paid by a temporary help agency, whether or not their job was temporary

Workers provided by contract firms

Workers who are employed by a company that provides them or their services to others under contract; they are usually assigned to only one customer and usually work at that customer's worksite

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11. How does BLS measure independent contractors?

Independent contractors are workers who are considered independent contractors, independent consultants, or freelance workers, whether they are self-employed or wage and salary workers.

To distinguish independent contractors from business operators—such as restaurant owners—the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) asks self-employed workers the following question:

Are you self-employed as an independent contractor, independent consultant, freelance worker, or something else (such as a shop or restaurant owner)?

Wage and salary workers are asked a different question:

Last week, were you working as an independent contractor, an independent consultant, or a freelance worker? That is, someone who obtains customers on their own to provide a product or service.

For example, Tim is a freelance writer. Some companies contact him directly for specific pieces. He also pitches ideas for articles to potential clients.

Tim is an independent contractor.

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12. Are all self-employed workers also independent contractors?

Not necessarily. For example, restaurant owners are self-employed, but they are not independent contractors.

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13. How does BLS measure on-call workers?

On-call workers are people who are called to work only as needed, although they can be scheduled to work for several days or weeks in a row.

This category includes workers who answer "yes" to the question:

Some people are in a pool of workers who are ONLY called to work as needed, although they can be scheduled to work for several days or weeks in a row, for example, substitute teachers and construction workers supplied by a union hiring hall. These people are sometimes referred to as ON-CALL workers. Were you an ON-CALL worker last week?

People with regularly scheduled work, which might include periods of being "on call" to perform work at unusual hours, such as medical residents, are not included in this category.

Shanice has worked as a substitute teacher for the county school system for years. She is notified in the mornings about the county's need for substitute teachers for that day. She typically only works one day per week, although sometimes she works multiple days in a row.

Shanice is an on-call worker.

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14. How does BLS measure temporary help agency workers?

Temporary help agency workers are people who were paid by a temporary help agency, whether or not their jobs were temporary.

This category includes workers who say their job is temporary and answer "yes" to the question:

Are you paid by a temporary help agency?

Also included are workers who say their job is not temporary and answer "yes" to the question:

Even though you told me your job is not temporary, are you paid by a temporary help agency?

For example, Elsa works for a staffing company. Since she was hired, Elsa has been working for a single client to fill in for an accountant on maternity leave.

Elsa is a temporary help agency worker.

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15. How does BLS measure workers provided by contract firms?

Workers provided by contract firms are those who are employed by a company that provides them or their services to others under contract. They are usually assigned to only one customer and usually work at the customer's worksite.

This category includes workers who answer "yes" to the question:

Some companies provide employees or their services to others under contract. A few examples of services that can be contracted out include security, landscaping, or computer programming. Did you work for a company that contracts out you or your services last week?

These workers also responded "no" to the question:

Are you usually assigned to more than one customer?

Finally, these workers responded "yes" to the question:

Do you usually work at the customer's worksite?

For example, Alex recently started a job with a company that supplies security guards on a contract basis. He has been placed with a single client and guards the same building every work day.

Alex is a worker provided by a contract firm.

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16. Are workers in alternative employment arrangements also contingent workers?

Not necessarily. Contingent work and alternative employment arrangements are measured separately. A person in an alternative employment arrangement may or may not be a contingent worker. Likewise, a contingent worker may or may not be in an alternative employment arrangement.

For example, Megyn started working for a temporary help agency last week. She has been working for a single client to fill in for a forklift driver who will be on vacation for 2 weeks.

Megyn is a temporary help agency worker. She is also a contingent worker because her job is temporary and not expected to last.

Julio also started working for a temporary help agency last week. He has been placed at a law firm preparing legal documents. The firm has told him that if his work is satisfactory, he can be assigned to work for them by the temporary help agency for as long as he wants.

Julio is a temporary help agency worker. However, he is not a contingent worker because his job is not temporary—he can work at his job as long as he wishes.

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17. Are the data on contingent workers and workers in alternative employment arrangements available for states, cities, or local areas?

No. Because of the relatively small sample sizes in most states, BLS does not plan to tabulate subnational estimates for contingent workers and workers in alternative employment arrangements.

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18. Will data on contingent work and alternative employment arrangements be available on CPS public use microdata files?

Yes. Data about contingent work and alternative employment arrangements from the May 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement are available from the U.S. Census Bureau's DataWeb FTP page. As with all CPS microdata, personally identifiable information is removed.

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19. I've heard a lot about people who use a website or mobile app to connect them with customers to do short tasks. Are these people classified as contingent workers?

Not necessarily. Like all workers, they are only considered contingent workers if they think their jobs are temporary and do not expect them to last.

For example, Claudia signed up to work for a ridesharing company last month. On weekends, Claudia uses the company's mobile app to find customers and, for a prearranged price, drives them from place to place using her own car. This is her only job, and she expects to continue to do this for as long as she wants.

Claudia is not a contingent worker because she expects her job to last.

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20. I've heard a lot about the "gig economy" and "gig workers." Are contingent workers and workers in alternative employment arrangements considered gig workers?

BLS does not have a definition of the gig economy or gig workers. In fact, researchers use many different definitions when they talk about the gig economy. These definitions may overlap with contingent workers and some of those in alternative employment arrangements. One of the strengths of the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) is that it measures many different types of work, allowing researchers to study the workforce using their own definitions.

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Last Modified Date: August 7, 2018