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Gig work and workers in the Pandemic

From my ten years of writing about the gig economy, and over thirty years of being part of it in some form or another, I know that being a contingent worker can be difficult in the best of times. So what happens when the economy as we know it shuts down because of a global pandemic?

Well, lots of stuff, as you might imagine. I’m currently working on survey of gig workers that I expect to go out in the next few weeks or so, but thanks to some other folks doing great work in this area, I do have some key takeaways at this point:

Key takeaways

From UCLA Labor Center/SEIU​, June / July 2020

  • COVID-19 dramatically diminished gig workers’ income & increased the precarity of their schedules​
    • Half had to stop working; 70% had reduced hours​
  • Working during COVID-19 poses health risks for gig workers ​
    • Lack of PPE; lack of company support​
  • Gig workers needed to access workplace benefits​
    • 30% had no insurance; most who did had gov’t plans​
  • Gig workers experienced financial, housing, and food insecurity​
    • 33-39% were food insecure or close to it​

From the Harris/AP-NORC Poll, July 16-20, 2020​

  • Demand for food & grocery delivery was steady or slightly up​
  • Demand for ride-hailing dropped from 42% to 16%​
    • 63% of ride-hail users stopped during COVID-19​
  • 35% favor regulations to increase wages & benefits for ride-hail & delivery service drivers
    • Only 14% opposed them, with most indifferent​
    • Support falls to 22% when those regulations mean a 25% cost increase for users​, but rises a bit if the cost is 5%

From the AppJobs/Future of Work Institute Poll, March 17-20, 2020

Click to enlarge
  • Winners​
    • Survey takers​
    • Delivery​
    • Freelance​
  • Losers​
    • Drivers*​
    • Home services​
    • Personal services
Click to enlarge


  • Lost jobs​
  • Less work​
  • Safety concerns​
  • 70% unsatisfied with support​ from employers

From the OECD/AppJobs Institute​, June 2020

Other issues reported​

  • Need for financial support, hazard pay, days off, help with essential expenses, access to credit, & charity/emergency funds​
  • Benefits such as sick leave, furlough & other government assistance​
  • Safer work environments​
  • More compassion from platforms, including:​
    • Care for worker wellbeing, esp. sick workers​
    • Moratorium on dismissals​
    • Better communication, esp. regarding COVID risks​
    • General respect​

And some preliminary policy recommendations

So how do we begin to address the precariousness faced by so many gig workers, especially those in the platform economy? Here are some idea I’ve been kicking around:

  • Worker-owned platforms​
  • Make the PUA permanent for freelance & platform workers​
    • The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, originally part of the CARES act from March 2020, extended unemployment benefits to self-employed and freelance workers impacted by the pandemic. The PUA has been extended under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) through early September, 2021, but now that we know both how to do it and how well it worked, we should make it permanent for the over eight million recipients and beyond.
  • Extend federal protections to gig work, including but not limited to:​
    • OSHA protections​
    • Overtime pay​
    • Collective bargaining rights​
    • Family care leave​
    • Other portable benefits​
  • Universal basic income (UBI)​
    • Now that the results of the Stockton, CA experiment are starting to come in, as well as several others in the US and abroad, we know that giving workers an economic floor both helps keep them afloat and, even more importantly, helps them get ahead.

I’m looking forward to reporting more soon. These and other findings have been presented at the 2020 Northeastern Conference on Public Administration, the 2021 American Society for Public Administration Conference, and the Pace University Future of Work Conference.

A new profile of my current work…

Thanks to Lance Pauker and the folks at the Pace University’s Opportunitas newsletter for this flattering profile of my current gig economy research.

“The Professor Is In: Ric Kolenda, Opportunitas, January 5, 2021, Pace University
— Read on https://www.pace.edu/news/professor-ric-kolenda

Electric Scooters: Scourge or Savior?

Micromobility is all the rage these days. Here’s the latest report from my friends at 12 Tone Consulting… this one’s on e-scooters, the new big (little) thing in urban transport, coming soon (no doubt) to your town and mine. Get prepared for the onslaught with this excellent report!

[Note: They even asked yours truly to offer a few thoughts, but don’t hold that against ’em.]

To prepare cities for e-scooters, 12 Tone Consulting created a “Regulation Breakdown” of U.S. cities and their recent scooter regulations. With this report, we provide unique takeaways from U.S. cities currently experimenting with (or proposing) pilot programs, which we then use to provide guidelines on how other cities should approach these new e-scooter vendors.



Best & Worst Cities for Recreation

Check out this new story on WalletHub.com… 2018’s Best & Worst Cities for Recreation. I contributed a few thoughts on what I think makes a good city for recreation, and how cities could go about achieving them.

Fewer film jobs in Georgia for 2014: trend or adjustment?

New data from the County Business Patterns shows a big loss in film jobs for Georgia since 2013. However, there has still been healthy growth overall since the state introduced up to 30% in transferable tax credits for film productions, with a 74% growth rate since 2010, and 29% overall since 2012.

In 2014, non-exhibition motion picture employment declined to 2,845 in 2014, a 1/3 drop from the record high of 4,282 in 2013. The reasons for this volatility are not yet clear, but the most likely explanation is just an anomalous growth rate in 2013, which was nearly double that of the previous year. And the average growth rate since 2010 is still quite healthy at over 26%/year, more than double that of the industry nationwide (11.6%), and also well above most other states, with one notable exception…

Utah, the Beehive State (yes, I had to look that up). My preliminary glance at the data showed that Utah’s growth rate, which was astronomical in 2013 (nearly quadrupling from 749 to 3,573), declined, but still showed healthy numbers, especially per capita. 2014 saw film employment at 2,821, nearly identical to that of Georgia, a much larger state, and an average annual growth rate of over 90% since 2010. What had previously appeared to be a bizarre anomaly is clearly becoming something of a trend. Is this a Sundance thing, or something more. Any Utahns out there, please post your thoughts in the Comments section below…

Are MPIs putting Atlanta (and Georgia) on the filmmaking map?

After over ten years of movie production tax incentives (MPIs), Georgia may finally be reaping the rewards of their generous tax credits in the way of a local film industry growth. MovieMaker magazine just named Atlanta the number one city for filmmakers to live and work, and the 2013 employment numbers showed a nearly 100 percent growth from the previous year.

MovieMaker Best Places to Live

Atlanta #1 among big cities, and Savannah #1 among small ones

Atlanta was just named first among the “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2016: Top 10 Big Cities,” up from sixth last year, according to MovieMaker magazine this month, with Savannah coming in first among the top ten small cities (“Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2016: Top 10 Small Cities and Towns“).

So Atlanta beat out New York, Austin, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, in the following four spots respectively. Chicago, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and Memphis rounded out the top ten.

Atlanta’s top position was, according to the article, based on several key factors: generous 30% tax credits; a growing talent pool that increasingly includes directors and producers, as well as talent for larger on-screen roles; a hip-hop scene to rival New York and L.A.; good restaurants; affordable housing; and the fact that “217 days of the year are pure sunshine.” Another oft-mentioned factor, overlooked here, is the city’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, the busiest in the world.

Maybe more importantly, film employment has increased dramatically in the state. According to recent figures released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia saw a 94 percent growth in employment in motion picture production and distribution, and a 187 percent growth since 2010.


MP Emp by State, 2002-2013

Source: County Business Patterns

Looking at a comparison of Georgia and 11 other states with MPIs over this period, most have stayed rather steady over the 12-year period. Utah saw a large increase in 2013 as well, but this might be a statistical aberration, given the low-level of employment in all the previous years. California and New York were left off this intentionally, since both states’ much higher overall numbers obscure the differences in the smaller states, but neither showed anything like Georgia’s growth over the last few years.

This brings up a few questions: is this meteoric rise for Georgia due mostly to the state tax incentive, or are other factors at least as important? And given the success of the industry in recent years, are incentives still necessary going forward, or could they be reduced or eliminated? Time will tell, but as a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution article indicates, the state seems committed to continued support for the incentives.

New legislative studies advise caution on film tax credits

CA LAO Study

The latest report by the California LAO

Yesterday the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) issued a new report on the impacts of that state’s 10% tax credit for film and television production. This follows on the heels of a similar report from North Carolina. Both states are debating whether to continue the tax credit programs, and these reports are bad news for supporters of movie production incentives (MPIs) in both states.

The California LAO study avoided clear recommendations for lawmakers, but their key takeaways were:

  • States shouldn’t compete for film productions using subsidies
  • Since they do compete, California may need to protect its industry by doing the same
  • But lawmakers should proceed with caution, since the subsidies are both expensive, and do not pay for themselves

Obviously the admonition to other states is somewhat predictable, given the fact that Los Angeles County alone is home to some 50% of film industry employment nationally. And it is true that film production has declined in the state, both because of general declines in the industry and losses to other states. But the last issue — that the high costs of MPIs are not offset by the economic benefits — challenges more rosy pictures painted by many previous studies, including one from the Milken Institute from February. According to that report:

California should not attempt to capture or keep productions that are looking for the highest possible incentives — that’s a game it can’t win. Instead, the state must facilitate the preservation of the core employment base and production infrastructure, as well as help local filmmakers restructure and adapt to the new age of digital production and distribution… California should ensure enough incentives to balance out its higher costs and the increasing aggressiveness of other states without sacrificing its future. (Klowden et al., 2014)

The LAO study revisits an earlier study by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), which suggested that “…every $1 of tax credit returned $1.11 in state and local revenue.” The LAO estimated that a more accurate figure would be %0.65 for every $1 spent. In addition to the cautions suggested above, the report points out that film and television production could decline in the state regardless of legislative actions, that subsidizing this industry both sets an awkward precedent and could stoke a “race to the bottom” with other states, and that the effectiveness of MPIs could be difficult to assess in any case.

The California study follows closely a memo by the North Carolina Fiscal Research Division (FRD), which itself was a response to an industry-supported study by researchers at North Carolina State University. Though the memo was more preliminary than the California LAO report, it did find several concerns with the more optimistic results of the NC State report. Similar to the California case, initial calculations suggest that instead of returns of $1.06 and $1.42 for state and state + local for each $1 of tax credit, the FRD found returns of $0.46 and $0.61 per $1 respectively. The 25% tax credit for North Carolina productions is set to sunset at the end of 2014, barring action by the legislature to extend it.

Look for more such dueling studies as increasingly states question the efficacy of MPIs as a tool for employment and economic growth going forward.



Two recent presentations shed light on metro film jobs & the rise of Atlanta as a filmmaking mecca

It’s been a busy few weeks for me…

First, I traveled to San Antonio for my fourth Urban Affairs Conference. My presentation was a comparative study of 22 states offering movie production incentives (MPIs) over the last 10 years, with a special focus on the metropolitan nature of film employment. [see the complete presentation here].

Film industry employment is metro employment

San Antonio at Night

San Antonio at Night

Besides showing that across states, an increase in film industry employment has a lot more to do with the level of existing employment — showing a path-dependent relationship — than with the level of tax incentives available, I was able to show that film jobs are heavily concentrated in metropolitan places. In a pooled sample from 2007-11, 94% of film industry workers lived in metro areas, with nearly half (43%) in the metros’ central cities. In addition, over half (53%) lived in the top 10 filmmaking cities, with nearly 40% of workers residing in the greater Los Angeles (*including Riverside-San Bernardino) and New York metros.

Top 10 Metros

Top 10 Metros by Film Employment (Source: IPUMS ACS 2007-11 Pooled Sample)

In Georgia, nearly 90% of film industry jobs were in the 4 central counties of the Atlanta metro (Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb & Gwinnett).

GA Film Emp Map

GA Film Employment by County (Source: GA CEW data)


The rise of “Hollywood South”

Anyone who has lived, worked, or even visited Atlanta lately can easily recognize the signs: a line of white trailers, covered windows with adjacent scaffolding and lighting rigs, and the occasional celebrity/zombie sighting… all evidence of the recent growth in film & TV production in Atlanta and the surrounding area.

GSU Centennial Hall

The auditorium @ GSU’s Centennial Hall

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend the Second Annual Atlanta Studies Symposium, held at the newly acquired and renovated Georgia State University Centennial Hall, formerly housing the Atlanta Life Financial Group. This is noteworthy because GSU has led the revitalization of downtown Atlanta, taking over former office towers and commercial spaces nearly as fast as their tenants could skedaddle to the northern suburbs. But I digress…

Amidst a great assortment of presentations on Atlanta past and present, I was on a panel that included research on the option of local, organic food for low-income urban families; and a look at the new trend in “open streets” programs in cities around the U.S. and beyond. I had tough acts to follow, but I persevered. Mine was the last panel presentation of the day, before the closing keynote by Regime Politics author Clarence Stone, so I felt some pressure to keep my audience awake so they wouldn’t miss hearing from this icon of urban politics. I was really wishing I could still make some changes to my PowerPoint, but I was forced to improvise a bit at the last minute when, just moments before the panel began, I received a tweet informing me of an article just released by The Hollywood Report entitled “How Georgia Toppled Louisiana in Attracting TV Productions.” Needless to say, I wanted to include this in my talk, so I found myself opening by reading quotes off my iPhone… [See my tweet/blog piece on this article shortly]

After giving a litany of recent productions shot in or near Atlanta in the last several months, including the Hunger Games series (all 4 films so far and counting); Anchorman 2, which had my beloved Manuel’s Tavern converted to a New York watering hole after replacing all the Atlanta sports memorabilia (and one naked portrait) with that of NYC teams; and of course The Walking Dead, whose popularity is such that after 4 seasons, it has spawned a cottage industry of TWD locations tours.

According to Georgia’s Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, nearly $1 billion was spent directly in the state in fiscal year 2013, generating an estimated $3.3 billion in economic impact. That’s an increase of $55 million from FY2012, and nearly a quarter of a billion since FY 2011, when the industry spent $689 mil. That is nothing to sneeze at. But of course they didn’t mention the cost of the program, which could be up to 30% of that direct expenditure, or upwards of $300 million from state revenues, since the tax incentives are based on the production budget, not the taxes owed. Producers are allowed to sell their excess credits, often heavily discounted, to other companies and individuals who owe Georgia state income taxes, which has spurred a new industry for brokers of such tax credits.

So given this growth in productions, what does that mean for the Georgia-based film industry? So far, it’s hard to tell. Based on the latest numbers I have (2011), film industry employment is at approximately the same level as it was in 2000, prior to the passage of a series of increasingly generous tax credits. There has been some growth since the bottom of 2004, following the passage of the first film tax credits in Louisiana, but the biggest spikes come immediately after increases in the credits, and then drop and/or level off (see the chart below).

Film Jobs in GA, 2000-11

Film Jobs in GA, 2000-11 (Source: GA CEW data)

Occupational data looked a bit more promising, but while the four major film & television occupations showed growth overall, only the largest and least production-specific group — Audio & Video Equipment Technicians — showed actual growth. (see the following chart).

GA BTL Occupations 2000-11

GA Film Production Occupations 2000-12 (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

In short, the last 2 years may in fact tell a different story, but in the mean time, I think we should be asking some tough questions about how this program is working, and whether it is really benefiting Georgia taxpayers, or even Georgia filmmakers.

Inequality in the Creative City

As you may know from my previous post, last week I attended the Experience the Creative Economy Conference in Toronto. One topic of the “Small Group Chats,” — four 30-minute open-ended discussions repeated on two consecutive mornings — was on “Inequality and the Right to the City.”

During the session, I alluded to one of my favorite quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who broke from the German Lutheran Church over opposition to the Nazi regime, and who ultimately was executed for his role in a failed assassination plot on Hitler. In his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he said that our role

“is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”

As biographer Eric Metaxas1 notes, this is an awkward translation, but it is generally understood to mean that we must stop the wheel of injustice by jamming a stick in it, which is a pretty radical way to stop a wheel, as you know if you’re a cyclist like me (does anyone else remember that harrowing race scene in the 1979 classic Breaking Away?). My interpretation is that the two approaches are not either/or, but both/and. It is not enough to merely bandage the victims, nor should we ignore the victims while we continue in the larger task of spoking that wheel of injustice.

Applied to the issue of inequality, this means battling it at both the micro and macro levels. Much of the criticism of the move toward more creative work is that it seems inevitably tied to increased levels of inequality. First, it is important to note that to some extent, the increase in wage inequality is a statistical problem; if incomes rise for some, even if all do not benefit, those at the lower end of the income scale are not worse off in absolute terms because others are doing better. Income is not a zero-sum game, after all, but I do not wish to get bogged down in the debate about relative vs. absolute poverty today, though it is a legitimate debate.

Another realm of urban inequality is spatial. Gentrification and the resulting displacement of economically disadvantaged residents is a common outgrowth of an increase in creative workers, especially in the central cities of the U.S. where a blend of federal housing and transportation policies and private market forces led to “white flight” and the great suburbanization of the post-war period. But as Jane Jacobs and others have pointed out, the city is a constantly changing organism, and displacements are an inevitable result of the spatial equivalent of Schumpeterian “creative destruction.” Here is where I want to revisit Bonhoeffer: rather than blindly battling urban redevelopment, we should be fighting the root causes of inequality, while simultaneously aiding those victimized by a broken system.

From a policy perspective, this means seriously addressing the issue of residential displacement by both slowing down the sometimes rapid rates of neighborhood transitions with strong laws protecting both renters and owner-occupiers such as some kind of rent stabilization2 and/or property tax relief for owners and landlords catering to the long-term residents. At the same time we need to work on the causes of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility.

In part two of this topic I will discuss why I think that creative work is not the problem, but rather at least a part of the solution to the larger trends toward wage inequality in the U.S. and elsewhere.

1Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p. 154.

2I’m fully aware of the problems with traditional rent controls, but there are some more targeted variations that avoid some of the worst issues of dead weight loss and reduced housing stock.

Building a community for creative urban research

What an incredible, humbling, stimulating, exhausting week I have had…
As I fly back to Atlanta from Toronto, with the nearly full moon out my window, I’ve seen several great cities from an aerial perspective — Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. — while reflecting on the last several days. This reflection was the final nudge I needed to make my inaugural blog entry.
I was fortunate enough to attend the 6th Annual Experience the Creative Economy Conference, convened by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. This year it brought together 17 young scholars interested in the intersection of cities, culture and the economy (plus me, the token old guy). Unfortunately 2 were unable to join us in person, but were able to present their work through the wonders of modern communications technology. And may I tell you… They were amazing! 
Split nearly evenly between North Americans and those from Europe, South Asia and South America, the passion and intellectual horsepower exhibited by these women and men was truly awe inspiring. And boy did I feel stupid! But not because they were showing off, or the least bit driven by ego; but more in the way that playing a superior opponent makes you want to bring your best effort.
I hope to keep in touch with all of them, if possible, and to use this space in the future to share some of their fascinating work, but for now I am content to acknowledge what has been for me a career-altering, if not life-changing, event.

Thanks to you all, and to organizers Kevin Stolarick, Karen King, Melanie Fasche, Charlotta Mellander, Zeynep Gamze Mert, Richard Florida, Barry Wellman, and all the great staff at MPI for a great event and connecting us to a remarkable network of urban intellectuals!
(Note: this was written en route from New York to Atlanta on Friday, June 21)