Gig Worker Benefits Bill Gains Republican Supporter

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By Tyrone Richardson

A Democratic bill intended to spur experimentation with health insurance and other portable benefits for gig economy workers has gained the support of a Republican senator, sparking optimism that other GOP lawmakers could follow.

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) signed on as the only co-sponsor for the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act ( S. 1251, H.R. 2685). The bill was introduced May 25 by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a longtime advocate of benefits for gig workers, such as those with Uber and Postmates.

Congress needs to “embrace the emerging gig economy as a way to generate upward mobility for Americans,” Young told Bloomberg BNA July 31.

As more and more Americans participate in this type of work, “we ought to anticipate new challenges and work toward addressing them,” Young said. “This bill starts that conversation and launches a pilot program that just might lead to a solution that benefits millions of Americans over time.”

Warner’s office July 31 highlighted Young’s support as part of a “growing recognition in Washington” that action is needed to provide benefits for gig economy workers as they move from job to job. The workers are usually classified as independent contractors who aren’t offered benefits and don’t get minimum wage, overtime, and workers’ compensation protections.

Although Young’s support for the bill adds a bipartisan touch to it, the freshman senator’s addition as a sponsor doesn’t necessarily mean the measure will move in Congress. Legislation has generally required Republican support for movement in the GOP-controlled Congress.

Support Sparks Optimism

“There is a growing recognition in Washington that the nature of work is changing rapidly, while our policies largely remain tied to a 20th century model of traditional full-time employment,” Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Warner, told Bloomberg BNA July 31. “Sen. Warner is glad to have the bipartisan support of Sen. Young in this effort to encourage experimentation at the state and local levels to find sustainable models for independent workers.”

The bill would create a $20 million Labor Department grant program for states, local governments, and nonprofits to experiment with portable benefits for gig workers. The legislative concept is similar to the DOL’s past use of grants to spur innovation.

Similar optimism was echoed by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who introduced the House version, which has three Democratic co-sponsors.

“I’ve found success in working across the aisle on issues dealing with innovation and technology,” she told Bloomberg BNA July 31. “I’m optimistic that the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act will be no different. People in both parties should be able to agree that we need innovative policies to address the rapidly changing workforce so our economy works for everyone.”

In discussing the need to adjust to the gig economy, Democrats and Republicans have talked generally about updating federal laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which offers minimum wage and overtime pay protections, to create a third category of worker.

The Senate version of the bill has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Young, a member of the HELP committee, could boost the chances that the panel could hold hearings on the measure.

The bill, however, calls for new Labor Department spending at a time when President Donald Trump and House Republicans want to reduce the agency’s spending.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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