As independent contractors and gig workers continue to make up a larger part of the U.S. workforce, there are many questions about how these workers can achieve financial and medical security. Legislators, businesses and workers have been looking at portable benefits as a replacement for traditional employer-sponsored programs covering health insurance, retirement savings and paid time off. Portable benefits attached to individuals do not have to be administered through employers.
Throughout 2022, NCSL convened a working group focusing on portable benefits for independent contractors, bringing together 12 legislators and legislative staff from across the country. The group, which held its final meeting in November last year, produced a report outlining key principles for legislators to consider when passing and implementing portable benefits policies. NCSL recently caught up with Connecticut Sen. James Maroney (D), a member of the working group, to learn more about the group’s work and the future of portable benefits.
NCSL: What are portable benefits and why are they important right now?
Maroney: Portable benefits are those that are not tied to a specific employer, but rather benefits that are attached to an employee. This means the employee can bring the benefits with them regardless of where they are employed. These benefits are critical as more people move to working in the gig economy; they allow for workers to have the flexibility of participating in the gig economy while still enjoying the benefits of full-time employment.
You were a member of the NCSL portable benefits working group. What value did the group have for learning about, discussing and exploring ideas, policies and principles related to these benefits?
Participating in the working group has offered several benefits to me. It allowed me to learn from viewpoints which were diverse both regionally and across the political spectrum. In addition, it afforded me the opportunity to learn from the NCSL staff.
What recommendations do you have for organizations such as NCSL to educate and inform legislators and legislative staff on portable benefits?
I think the most important thing for organizations to do is to, first, educate legislators and their staff on why portable benefits are so important. Many people do not realize the number of gig workers in their state and may not be aware of the opportunity portable benefits possess to attract new gig workers to live in their states. Finally, while many gig workers may have another job that provides their benefits, those who work full time in the gig economy and lack benefits can potentially increase costs for the state. There could be costs for those without health insurance, as well as a looming retirement crisis fueled by individuals who do not have sufficient retirement resources. Looking at the true costs to their state, the size of their gig economy and the potential for portable benefits can help legislators do a true cost-benefit analysis to determine what is truly in the best interest of the citizens of their state.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed unique vulnerabilities in the independent workforce. What recommendations do you have for other state policymakers who are looking into portable benefits?
Once you have settled on your “why” of why portable benefits are important for your state, you need to determine the who, what and how. Who are the benefits going to be geared toward? Are you going to narrowly target just one sector or allow any freelancers or 1099 employees to participate in these programs? What benefits are most critical for your state? Do you want to have a program for health insurance or retirement? Do you want to offer some form of paid sick leave or family leave? Are there existing programs in your state that you could piggyback off that would allow for some returns of scale? Finally, the how: How are they going to be funded? Will they be funded only by the individual, or the individual and the business, or by some type of user fee? Given that remote work in some capacity seems to be here to stay, the states that get these benefits right could become attractive locations for gig workers.
Landon Jacquinot is a policy associated in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.