Portable Benefits Bill Could Hit Before End of March, Warner Says

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By Tyrone Richardson

Legislation to help the Labor Department encourage states, localities and nonprofits to tinker with portable benefits systems is set to be unveiled in Congress as early as next week.

The measure “would make a substantial investment in DOL to actually allow cities, regions, and states to experiment with portable benefits,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) told Bloomberg BNA March 22.

Warner’s comments came the same day Labor Secretary nominee Alexander Acosta told a Senate committee that the DOL needs to update policies for the gig economy.

The bill also comes amid calls for the federal government to tweak employment tax and worker classification laws in response to the booming on-demand economy. Gig workers are often treated as independent contractors who usually are not offered benefits and don’t get minimum wage, overtime and workers’ compensation protections.

Grants to Encourage Innovation

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner, told Bloomberg BNA March 22 that all the details were still being finalized on the legislation, which would initiate a program of grants to encourage experimentation with benefits.

That could mean heath insurance, unemployment insurance and retirement benefits for Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig workers, as they move from job to job.

“Independent workers are a growing part of the 21st century workforce, and we should look for opportunities to figure out and experiment with ways to provide basic protections and benefits for these workers,” Hall said. “Sen. Warner will be encouraging the Labor Department to authorize some experimentation in this area.”

Calls to Update Workforce Rules

Warner has spoken about the needs of gig workers for years, including expressing interest in encouraging portable benefits, such as those seen with building trades unions in the 1950s when carpenters worked for multiple contractors.

Acosta, during his confirmation hearing March 22, told the Senate panel that the gig economy has shed light on some outdated rules that “aren’t designed and haven’t caught up to the gig economy since they’ve been assuming a more traditional workplace.”

“It’s something that we are going to have to talk about and address, but it has to be at the local level,” he said.

Acosta’s comments come as the DOL is planning to add new questions to its contingent worker survey in May 2017. The survey data haven’t been updated since 2005.

Updating the policies is backed by, among others, Gene Zaino, president of self-employed business service provider MBO Partners.

“Rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all solution to the independent workforce, a diverse group of more than 40 million individuals nationwide, Labor Department Secretary nominee Alexander Acosta has the opportunity to further empower these self-directed and motivated individuals by updating rules that were originally made for a traditional employment model,” Zaino told Bloomberg BNA.

Zaino added that lawmakers should consider creating a “safe harbor” classification for certain gig workers who want to be treated as independent contractors. That would mean the self-employed workers could waive protections that come with being classified as traditional employees of their clients.

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; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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