HEALTH

Assembly bill would create benefits system for contract and freelance workers

By Michael Hill
Correspondent

He drives for both Uber and Lyft but has no benefits from either. It’s a familiar story in post-recession America, but now there’s an Assembly bill that would give portable benefits to folks like him, those who do contract or freelance — or form 1099 — work for companies without insurance coverage or retirement contributions.

“We recognize the evolution of the workforce with the new gig economy,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton.

Singleton wants to create a pilot program to give health and workers comp insurance, retirement and paid time off benefits to freelancers and contract workers. His bill is up for a vote in the full Assembly:

“We want to make sure that folks have an opportunity to have the same sort of workplace protections in the form of benefits that many traditional opportunities prevail and have themselves. As we seen the social safety net has been always has been workplace benefits eroding and changing with the advent of this new economy. We want to make sure that we keep up with it,” he said.

Singleton says it would benefit taxpayers as well.

“Ultimately if they don’t and they need health care they fall upon the backs of the charity care, uncompensated care system in which we all pay anyway. So, this is a way to be proactive and make sure folks who are working in different capacities now have an opportunity to seek some benefits,” Singleton said.

Here’s how it would work: companies with 50 or more freelance or contract workers providing services for 12 months straight would collect a quarter from every dollar of sales to consumers. That money would go to a qualified benefit provider of the worker’s choosing. Workers would then be able to keep those same benefits if they go to another gig.

Singleton says 40 percent of the national workforce is moving toward a freelance, contract status. His bill comes on the heels of one in the U.S. Senate to study the issue.

Uber declined to comment. Lyft would not either on Singleton’s bill, but says a pilot program that encompasses all independent workers is a wise way to explore the development of portable benefits.

Singleton’s bill does have some opposition from unionized service workers of 32BJ SEIU.

“While we appreciate Assemblyman Singleton’s leadership on trying to make sure these workers are paid a decent living and have access to health benefits, it takes away their employee status. And we’re really not prepared for employees to lose those essential worker rights that they have to file complaints, whether it’s wage-an-hour or other human rights complaints, discrimination complaints. And of course in effort to organize a union, this would take away their employee status,” said 32BJ SEIU Vice President Kevin Brown.

Does it create a “second class” employee? “It does,” Brown said, “and while we would want them to be treated fairly just as Assemblyman Singleton does in terms of their compensation, we can’t compromise their rights as workers in the process.”

“We’ve been on a pretty fast track since we introduced it here in the state. I think people recognize it here in the Assembly how it could happen. I’m hopeful my friend the senate president will see it the same way and move it forward,” Singleton said.

Two Assembly committees — labor and appropriations — have approved Singleton’s portable benefits bill with Republicans opposing it and Singleton hoping the full Assembly approves it by the end of the month. A companion bill has yet to be introduced in the state Senate.