Changing employment laws to encourage so-called “portable benefits” is an idea that goes hand in hand with finding new ways to classify gig economy workers. These proposals are being pushed in a growing number of states. These proposals also enjoy support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. These proposals could also radically alter workers’ compensation in the United States.
The idea of third classification of worker between employee and independent contractor is to give so-called “gig economy” workers some protections and benefits without employers having to bear the full costs of employment – including unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance. Sometimes this third class of workers is described as “dependent contractors.
Portable benefits are usually discussed in the context of contractors because traditionally benefits such as unemployment, workers’ compensation and health insurance have been provided by employers. So-called portable benefits, are detached from employers. The Affordable Care Act increased portability of health insurance benefits through the use of exchanges Portability of health insurance was touted as a way to help create new businesses because potential entrepreneurs were not tied to an employer for health insurance.
The idea of portable benefits and a new classification for gig employers is also touted as a way to reduce litigation against companies such as Uber for how they classify employees. But former National Labor Relations Board member Craig Becker pointed out that creating a new class of workers may actually create more litigation when employers try to re-classify employee as dependent contractors. Becker and others pointed out that this is what happened in Italy when Italy created a third class of worker that was neither employee nor independent contractor.
Becker and others point out that the drive to create a new class of workers is being driven by tech companies such as Uber as a way of reducing labor costs. The real risks of creating a new classification of workers is shared even by some who promote the sharing or gig economy. Gene Zaino, founder and CEO of MBO Partners, a firm that provides services to independent workers, stated that any new classification of independent workers should only include workers who earn more than $50 per hour. Under such a scheme lower-paid workers would still retain the benefits and protections of the employment relationship.
Though states are pondering portability and dependent contractor laws, there is a push for federal legislation so that laws can remain uniform across the country. Any federal push for portable benefits for so-called independent workers would clash with state-based workers’ compensation laws. Workers’ compensation is traditionally a state law concern because when workers’ compensation laws were enacted the power of the federal government to implement laws regarding workplace safety were limited. During the New Deal-era, that interpretation of the interstate commerce clause changed to allow broad regulation of the workplace.
Advocates for state-based workers’ compensation laws likely have little constitutional grounds to overturn any federal legislation that would substitute “portable benefits” for so-called “independent workers” for state-based workers’ compensation benefits. Some critics who argue, correctly, that many state-based laws inadequately compensate injured workers could also be open to or even welcome a federal substitute for insufficient state workers’ compensation laws.