Newly Unemployed, and Labeling Photos for Pennies
B.C. Kowalski, a writer at the local weekly in Wausau, Wisconsin, was expecting a boost to his income this spring. He was set to begin selling ads for local businesses on a podcast he’d launched on the side, Keep it Wausome. Then coronavirus restrictions shut down the town and its businesses.
To keep some extra dollars coming in, Kowalski has turned to Amazon’s crowd-work platform Mechanical Turk, where companies offer cents or dollars for small tasks such as labeling photos, transcribing audio clips, or answering survey questions.
Diane Brewer, who lives in Florida, is also counting on Mechanical Turk, as well as another crowd-work site called Prolific, where workers are paid to fill out surveys for academia and market research. She previously turned to crowd work during spells as a stay-at-home mom and convalescing after a car crash. Covid-19 convinced Brewer it was time to start again “to add some dollars to an uncertain future,” she says. Her long-term boyfriend works as a carpenter. “That may be an issue in the near future, because who is going to buy a house anytime soon?” she asks.
Brewer and Kowalski are among a global surge of people logging on to crowd-working sites due to the economic contagion of Covid-19. Millions of people are suddenly out of work or facing reduced hours, with many stuck at home sheltering in place. Crowd work can be done from anywhere with an internet connection.
UK-based Prolific saw 13 percent more workers in March than in February, according to its CEO, Katia Damer. Damer says that on average each crowd worker filled out more surveys, driving the value of transactions on the platform up more than 50 percent.
Hive, a crowd-work platform that specializes in tagging photos and other data for training machine-learning software, has also seen its workforce swell. Kevin Guo, the startup’s CEO and cofounder, says the daily count of new accounts on the service has more than doubled over recent weeks. A rush of new workers from Brazil and the Philippines has been particularly noticeable.
Amazon did not reply to a query about activity on Mechanical Turk, but Panos Ipeirotis, an NYU professor who has studied Mechanical Turk workers, says he’s seen more Turkers recently from Canada, Italy, and Brazil in particular. A spokesperson for Our Hit Stop, a discussion site for Mechanical Turk workers that sells a Chrome extension for finding the best paying tasks, says it has seen new memberships increase 20 percent and 30 percent of inactive members return.
Crowd work is generally not well paid. A 2018 study led by Carnegie Mellon University pegged the median wage at around $2 an hour although workers can push that higher by being careful about the tasks they select and using tools like Our Hit Stop’s that flag or snag the best work. Kowalski of Wausau says he uses those to select tasks that pay the equivalent of $9 to $15 per hour, but workers who need to take as much work as possible may not be able to be so choosy. Prolific markets itself to workers by promising that surveys pay at least $6.50 an hour.
The surge of crowd workers will increase the competition to land jobs, and could prompt those posting tasks to reduce their already low rates. But Kerri Reynolds, a vice president at Appen, which offers crowd-work jobs annotating images, text, or other data for clients including Microsoft and eBay, says she still has plenty of work to go around because Covid-19 has increased the supply of crowd work as well as crowd workers.
Reynolds says that might be because US companies have lost access to large pools of workers offshore as outsourcing companies have closed offices. “Perhaps with those shutting down, companies are looking for alternatives,” she adds.