Portable Benefits

· December 30, 2018

Part of the larger social contract forged over the 20th century was a set of a benefits: unemployment insurance, healthcare, workers compensation, and paid time off for vacation or for illness.

Different countries implemented these in different ways - some had it provided by the government, and paid by employers for through payroll taxes, such as in the UK. Some provided benefits through unions, paid by companies through negotiated agreement, such as unemployment insurance in the Ghent system. Finally, there were group insurance plans organised by the employer directly, though under pressure from union groups and with governmental tax support, such as in the US for healthcare.

All of these were predicated on a style of employment common at that time, full time employment with relatively limited changing of jobs. 21st century work has different characteristics in many countries - a rise in alternative employment options with platform based work, and a reduction in long-term employment even among regular workers.

This leaves workers without access to benefits, or disincentivized from taking socially beneficial actions like changing jobs due to ties to benefits. The Aspen Institute have a great paper on the idea of portable benefits, which they define as having the following characteristics:

  1. Portable - benefits follow the worker
  2. Pro-rated - contributions are made proportionally to time worked
  3. Universal - available to all forms of workers

Aspen’s focus is very much on alternative employment options, gig economy workers and so on, but there is value to even traditional workers in having benefits which are tied to them rather than to their employer or their industry. Managing your healthcare is a significant activity for many in the US, for example, balancing between options provided by the ACA, employer plans, and so on. Changing jobs can often mean losing access to your preferred doctors or facilities.

There are some good examples of more flexible solutions out there already. The Aspen paper covers multi-employer plans in construction and acting which allow workers to stabilise lumpy work schedules and ensure benefits even when moving between jobs. It also talks about the Black Car fund in New York which takes a percentage on all taxi-like rides and provides workers comp to all drivers, and is expanding to more benefit options.

Along similar lines, Alia is a new initiative from the National Domestic Workers Alliance (and outside investors, including Google’s charitable arm) which aims to provide benefits to house cleaners. People that book a cleaning chip in a few dollars for each clean, and Alia provides paid time off and unemployment insurance.

It’s somewhat easy to look at portable benefits as a US solution for a US problem, but some variant of the same concerns exists almost everywhere. Even in a more socialised system benefits are generally paid for through payroll taxes, and as employment and contracting become more fluid concepts it gets harder to properly apportion those costs, or pushes a greater burden on to individuals. Methods for properly managing contributions based on time worked are beneficial nearly everywhere, even if individual access is already a smaller problem.