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Can Wash. Workers Have Portable Benefits in Gig Economy?

A bill in the Washington state Legislature would give independent contractors portable benefits. (Karlis Dambrans/Flickr)
A bill in the Washington state Legislature would give independent contractors portable benefits. (Karlis Dambrans/Flickr)
February 27, 2017

OLYMPIA, Wash. – A new bill in the Washington state Legislature could help the growing number of workers without permanent jobs get benefits that go with them from job to job.

Lawmakers in Olympia have introduced House Bill 2109, which would set up portable, prorated accounts that give workers access to benefits such as worker's compensation, health insurance, retirement savings and paid time off – services that are usually provided by employers in traditional work setups, but typically aren't for people who work as independent contractors, for instance.

Nick Hanauer, the founder of Civic Ventures, an independent policy organization, helped craft this measure.

"This legislation is designed to make benefits universally applied, so that every employer pays benefits in some way, shape or form," said Hanauer, "and it's not possible to somehow skirt through a loophole so everybody else pays benefits but you don't."

Under the bill, an independent nonprofit would manage workers' money pools. Contributions would be made monthly by each employer a person works for. However, the bill could face opposition because of the costs it would pass on to businesses, workers or both.

The market for workers without permanent jobs, who often work on short-term contracts or as freelancers, is often called the "gig economy." The rise of the gig economy is changing the relationship between employers and employees. But Hanauer insists it shouldn't be a way for companies to maneuver around labor standards.

"We want companies to thrive because they're innovative, not because they're exploitive," he said. "And the folks that work for contractors, or Uber – or whoever it is – need the same kinds of benefits that folks who work for Microsoft get. And they deserve them."

Nearly 40 percent of Americans don't have full-time jobs, according to a Government Accountability Office report. And a growing number have alternative employment arrangements – working as independent contractors for such companies as Uber or Lyft, as freelancers, or for temp agencies.

A study by professors at Harvard and Princeton Universities found the number grew from 10 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2015.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA