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Portable benefits in the 21st Century: shaping a new system of benefits for independent workers

16 Jun 2016
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In the 21st century, as traditional work has become increasingly fissured and many of last century’s protections have eroded, America must once again re-examine our workforce safety net. The social contract that provided security and prosperity for previous generations is coming undone, as work becomes increasingly contingent, and companies do less and less to keep workers for a lifetime– or even a year. According to a recent study by Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton, the number of workers in “alternative work arrangements” (including temporary workers and independent contractors) rose by 9.4 million over the last decade. This increase accounts for the entire net rise in overall employment in the U.S. economy over that time.

Many in alternative work arrangements have ridden the rise of the “on-demand economy” through a growing number of peer-to-peer marketplaces like Uber, Lyft, or TaskRabbit. These marketplaces represent a great economic opportunity, but also have the potential to become a race to a bottom for workers: one without a shared safety net, not unlike the era that preceded the Great Depression. Right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create a new working world, one in which workers have the ability to choose how and when they work, and do not have to sacrifice social insurance to do so.

We should ensure that all workers, regardless of employment classification, have affordable access to a safety net that protects them when they are sick, injured, and when it is time to retire. Accepting this challenge, in November of 2015 an unlikely collaboration of individuals and organizations across the political spectrum made a call for a system of “Portable Benefits,” to serve as a new form of support for modern workers who are slipping through the gaps in our social safety net. New models, and likely enabling laws and regulations, will be required to fill these gaps in our safety net. At its core, this Portable Benefits proposal springs from the modern belief that workers should not need to choose between the flexibility of jobs in this new economy and stability of traditional employment. As Nick Hanauer and David Rolf originally postulated in their article, “Shared Security, Shared Growth” in Democracy Journal last summer, “We must acknowledge the radically different needs of a new generation of Americans—many of whom already have more employers in a week than their parents had in a lifetime—by adopting a new (system) designed to fit the flexible employment relationships of the ‘sharing economy.’”

While there are currently more questions than answers regarding the structure of such a system, most envision the system to contain three core tenets: portability, pro-rated, and universal.

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