More than a third of the American workforce did at least some work on the side this year as the Covid-19 pandemic decimated jobs and wages.

That translates to 59 million people, or two million more than in 2019, according to the Freelance Forward report released on Tuesday by Upwork, a firm that helps businesses find labour.

“There is this really long tail of people who participate a couple of times a month and even beyond that, a couple times a year,” said Upwork economist Adam Ozimek.

The study found that freelancers contributed $1.2 trillion to the US economy this year in annual earnings — a 22 per cent increase over 2019. Upwork Chief Executive Officer Hayden Brown said the move toward more remote work likely will accelerate the trend.

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More than a third of new independent contractors — most of whom shun the term gig worker — started after the onset of Covid-19 in early March, Upwork found. And more than half of 18- to 22-year-olds did some contract work in the past year, according to the report, which said virtually all recent freelancers plan to continue doing some projects on the side.

The Upwork data is bolstered by US Census Bureau business-formation statistics, which show a jump in self-employment.

Upwork’s survey also is supported by recent valuations of firms with business models tied to freelance work. For instance, the website Etsy — an online marketplace for mostly handmade goods — has more than doubled in value this year to surpass a market capitalisation of $13 billion.

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Three years ago, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics — using a narrower definition of contingent worker — found that only 5.9 million Americans, or just under 4 per cent of the workforce, fell into that category.

For the current report, Upwork surveyed 6,001 US workers between June 15 and July 7.