Can ‘Tech for Good’ Help Gig Workers Get Relief?

The pandemic has been devastating for gig workers. The Workers Lab’s latest Design Sprint is testing how new technology can fix flaws in the unemployment insurance system and strengthen the safety net for gig workers.
Written by Kate Wittels, Bret Collazzi, Giacomo Bagarella and Amelia Taylor-Hochberg
Amid the unprecedented rise in unemployment since March 2020, no group has been hit as hard or for as long as gig workers – that broad and growing category that includes everyone from drivers to domestic workers to artists to farm workers. Also unprecedented was the government’s response, opening up unemployment insurance (UI) for the first time to these workers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.
Yet the PUA rollout has not gone smoothly. State labor agencies, asked to administer benefits faster and to more people than ever before, have struggled to process claims quickly and to deliver benefits accurately, to the detriment of gig workers in need of immediate relief. As Adrian Haro, CEO of The Workers Lab, notes:

“Our unemployment insurance system was designed largely to serve workers in traditional nine to five jobs. The system has historically excluded people in non-traditional work such as ‘gig work,’ which remains largely in the hands of people of color … The result has been millions of gig workers waiting months without being able to provide for their families. Some have received far less than they deserved, and some have been outright denied because the system can’t make sense of what the workers are owed.”

The Workers Lab (TWL), a nonprofit whose mission is to give new ideas about increasing worker power a chance to succeed and flourish, recently launched a Design Sprint with tech partner Steady to develop a tool that will enable states to deliver more accurate benefits faster to gig workers, now and in the future. HR&A is proud to be supporting TWL as project manager and strategic advisor for the Sprint.
The main hiccup for PUA is how labor income is reported, because the benefit amount for which a worker is eligible depends on their prior income. For “traditional” W-2 employees, employers report income data directly to states, so labor agencies can easily verify income. For gig workers, states don’t have this source of data, so workers must submit the information themselves. For many, this means documenting payments and expenses from multiple sources every week as many gig workers can juggle multiple jobs in a given day. States then need to process these claims manually, straining limited staff resources. This has led to delays and mistakes in claim decisions and to vulnerability to fraud from organized criminal groups.
The tool developed by TWL and Steady allows gig workers to quickly generate a secure and accurate report of their income and expenses by linking directly to their accounts with gig platforms and financial institutions. Workers can then submit the report with their PUA application, making it easier for states to process, verify, and screen out fraud. TWL and Steady’s next step is to partner with a state to test the tool to, in Haro’s words, “demonstrate that government can innovate not only to make gig workers’ lives easier today, but also to make our unemployment insurance system more equitable, accessible, and inclusive of workers that have historically been excluded.”
The Design Sprint has already demonstrated the value of collaborating with workers to co-develop technology. Over several months, Steady and TWL tested prototypes of the tool with a group of app-based drivers affiliated with the Philadelphia Drivers Union. User workshops shed important light on how workers track and manage income, how different gig work platforms provide access to historical earnings data, how workers navigate the complexity of dealing with gig companies and State services, and what privacy and data integrity concerns need attention. This direct user feedback not only led to improved functionality but has also helped build trust among workers.
A lack of consistency across UI systems and gig platforms makes UI administration harder on workers and states. The federal government regulates State unemployment systems but states have significant discretion (and variation) in their application processes, the information they require, and even the amount of benefits they provide. This means that each state needed to create its own solutions to PUA demands and troubleshoot issues largely on its own. Meanwhile, each gig platform has a different set of rules about what type of income information is available to workers, with no system for the government to access or verify that data. This places a heavy burden on individual gig workers.
Lessons from this Design Sprint could improve safety net programs across the board. Many government benefits, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to housing assistance, require some form of income verification. Innovations and tech emerging from TWL and Steady’s work could build the basis for more seamless and automatic income verification across safety net programs while helping to inform broader discussions about how civic tech can keep up to help, rather than hinder, workers.
These are just a few insights so far. We look forward to learning – and reporting back – more as the Design Sprint advances.
To learn more about the Design Sprint and unemployment benefits for gig workers, Haro, Steady CEO Adam Roseman, and Monique Baptiste, Vice President of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, will host a live briefing about their work on Tuesday, April 27, at 1pm ET/10am PT.