The case for untangling benefits from employment


The pandemic upended our views about not only how and where work gets done, but also the role of work in our lives. Millions of people joined the Great Resignation. While their reasons for quitting traditional full-time jobs may vary, many former 9-5 employees are joining the freelance economy.

As the number of freelancers grows, the issue of benefits grows more urgent. Unlike in many other countries, essential elements of securing a comfortable and healthy life—health insurance, unemployment insurance, paid vacation, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, and retirement savings—are typically tied to having a full-time job with a single employer.

But, over the past several years, there has been a growing movement by both labor advocates and businesses to make benefits portable. So what would portable benefits look like? And what will it take to get there?

On the latest episode of The New Way We Work, I spoke to Sara Horowitz, founder and former executive director of the Freelancers Union and founder of the Mutualist Society.

When Horowitz founded Freelancers Union over 25 years ago, she says the public perception of freelancing was that it was a euphemism for being unemployed. Now, she notes it’s likely to be part of everyone’s career trajectory.

“We’ve seen companies and organizations adapt so much in terms of how we actually get work, but what we really haven’t seen any real change on is insurance, social protection,” she says. “I think, really sad, that the for-profit, largest companies have a lock-in keeping insurance the way it has always been. That’s where we still need to see political change, cultural change.”

Horowitz takes what may seem to some as a less conventional approach to how that should be done. Rather than having benefits sit squarely with either a private employer or as part of a government program, she believes that benefits should live in the middle ground between smaller community groups and mutual aid groups.

“I think what we really need to do is start as if we were doing a giant white-boarding session for America,” she says. “People really are moving around, and their lives and incomes are more episodic than ever before. And the truth is that they’d really like to get their benefits through the organizations they trust, whether it is their mutual aid society, their faith community, their employer, their union, their cooperative.”

Horowitz uses disaster response as an example of how a mutualistic approach to benefits could operate. After a disaster, “a very rich network of infrastructure [is built by people] in the first few months, right after that FEMA comes in, and then they outsource it all to the for-profit sector. So there’s no reason why we have to do this,” she says.  “We actually could take 2% of that money and say, every time there’s a natural disaster, we want to see 2% of all FEMA money going to cooperatives.”

She says that is a useful model for portable benefits. Horowitz argues that we have the technology infrastructure in place with distributed ledger and blockchains, and that benefits could be kept track of by being able to access them through local cooperative-based groups that could distribute funds from a lot of government programs.

For more on her vision of the future, as well as the business case for portable benefits, listen to the full episode.

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