Last week, Senator Mark Warner and Rep. Suzan DelBene introduced the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act. The Act would authorize $20 million for competitive grants to states, local governments and nonprofits to fund pilot projects around portable benefits. The program aims to provide wide latitude for grantees to experiment with innovative new models of providing benefits for workers outside of “traditional full-time employment.” The only requirements seem to be that the pilot programs: (1) provide benefits that are usually available to “traditional full-time employees,” but are not retirement benefits; (2) allow accumulated benefits to be portable from one job to another; (3) accept contributions from more than one job; and (4) be scalable to a national program. With this legislation, Senator Warner demonstrates again why he is considered a Congressional leader in thinking seriously about the policy implications of the gig economy.
The proposal is a serious attempt to address the needs of the growing number of American workers who lack even the most basic employment benefits — workers comp, unemployment insurance and paid leave. Too many workers are rendered economically vulnerable, not only because of the precarious nature of their paychecks, but because of lack of access to the safety net to catch them when those paychecks diminish or stop coming. New ways of accessing traditional safety net benefits would be a step up for these workers.
Senator Warner’s proposal leaves open many important questions about the optimal features of a portable benefits program – who pays, how much should contributions be, and how can we prevent such programs from encouraging the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. Before we move a major national program, we will have to answer these important questions. I can see the value in Senator Warner’s proposal as a vehicle for moving those debates forward.