Evaluating Different Program Models for Integration and Implementation
- What is involved in portable benefits administration and who should carry it out?
- What lessons might state policymakers draw from existing state benefits programs, state-facilitated (public-private partnership) models, private market solutions, international frameworks or from their own experiences using nontraditional workers?
Potential roles for a benefit administrator could include receiving contributions and monitoring related compliance issues; evaluating, selecting and contracting with benefit providers; and managing provisions related to program eligibility and service delivery. Questions quickly crop up about who is best positioned to do that work. Should portable benefits funds be administered by non-profits, for-profits (like financial institutions), state agencies, or some combination?
Previously introduced state legislation contemplates a variety of different administrative frameworks for portable benefits programs aimed at non-traditional workers. For example, legislation introduced in Massachusetts in 2021 directs the Department of Family and Medical Leave to promulgate rules applicable to banks that would administer portable benefit accounts for network company drivers. Wisconsin’s 2021 bill also looks to financial institutions. Bills in Georgia, New Jersey, and Washington rely on qualified non-profit benefit providers, limiting the percentage of contributed funds that can be diverted for benefits administration. In those three proposals, state labor and workforce agencies are charged with adopting rules that govern qualified benefit providers, monitoring contracting agent compliance, and administering workers’ compensation coverage.
State legislators want the flexibility to tailor any benefits program to the labor economy and political realities of their state. They envision portable benefits arrangements along a series of continuums, from those that serve platform-based gig workers in population centers to those tailored to the needs of seasonal agricultural laborers; from structures that echo traditional employee benefits packages designed to facilitate worker retention and long-term financial security to flexible, a la carte offerings that cater to shifting worker priorities; from publicly funded programs that may prioritize equity and uniformity to privately run packages that draw on industry-specific innovations and competition.
In that vein, the Aspen Institute analyzed some of the relative merits of public versus private programs. Advantages of public benefits administration include scale, inclusivity and accountability. Publicly run systems could yield efficiencies associated with larger risk pools. But creating new public programs can be challenging politically, and the process is both time and resource intensive. In contrast, for-profit governance could help keep costs low, processes efficient, and facilitate a speedy rollout. One vital consideration discussed elsewhere in this document is the role of purely private sector innovation such as short-term disability insurance products for gig workers or fintech platforms to address independent workers’ tax, health insurance, emergency, and retirement savings needs in informing or ultimately leading the way to broader applications.
There are also compelling questions around public-private partnerships and how to leverage or expand existing public programs. For example, The Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Program is a joint effort between the states and the federal government to temporarily provide income to eligible workers. This public program is administered by the states and funded by employers. To qualify for unemployment insurance benefit payments, every state requires claimants to be unemployed, able, available and actively searching for work in some capacity. Until the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, independent contractors and other types of nontraditional workers were excluded from coverage. The pandemic era’s temporary expansion of coverage has ignited debates about improving the portability and universality for unemployment insurance by revising eligibility criteria and simplifying documentation processes to better serve workers in non-standard arrangements.
In the meantime, state-facilitated retirement savings programs offer one example of public-private partnerships designed to afford a measure of benefit portability. In the last 10 years, state legislators have introduced and adopted a wide range of state-facilitated retirement savings programs, some of which feature IRAs that receive automatic deposits from workers’ paychecks. These programs generally require employers of a certain size to offer their employees a way to save for their future. Businesses may sponsor their own 401(k) or similar savings vehicle, or their employees may participate in the state-facilitated alternative. In the latter type of arrangement, worker funds are pooled and professionally managed by financial services providers.
Thirteen states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Virginia—have adopted similar auto-IRA programs in recent years. Implementation is already well underway in several states including California, Illinois and Oregon, whose combined saver assets now top $500 million. Other state program variations include marketplaces, state-run “electronic clearinghouses” where businesses can find and compare retirement savings plans offered by private sector providers, and Multiple Employer Plans, in which several employers may band together voluntarily, offering higher contribution limits than an IRA and the potential for employer matching contributions. Recent innovations in the state-facilitated plan space include a first-of-its kind, multistate collaboration between Colorado and New Mexico, with the potential to increase access to portable benefits for workers, ease burdens on employers and smooth administration for the states and their industry partners. While most of these programs are currently geared toward employees, Maine’s program must also permit individuals who are not employees, such as self-employed people and independent contractors, to participate.
Other models state policymakers are considering include multiple employer/Taft-Hartley plans in which several employers in the same industry or geographic area contribute according to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. These contributions are pooled and invested for growth, and eventually, used to pay for plan members’ benefits. The Taft-Hartley Act requires funds under these arrangements to be governed by boards of trustees with fiduciary duties, typically comprised of union and employer representatives, and invoke ERISA and NLRA protections. The Screen Actors Guild-Producers Pension and Health Plan and the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund are examples of this arrangement. Recent years have found some multiemployer plans mired in financial and legal trouble. Critical considerations for policymakers examining portable benefit design questions include the desirability and feasibility of linking benefits to collective bargaining regimes. Some observers question the fit between traditional collective bargaining and a nontraditional workforce whose members may hold seasonal jobs, perform multiple types of work simultaneously, or rarely interact. For example, high rates of movement between jobs may impact effective organizing among independent workers, right-to-work laws that have passed in many states may present special complications and the true portability of any benefits in a largely industry-specific scheme is a matter of debate.
One state legislative proposal which borrows from this multiple employer idea is Connecticut’s 2021 bill, whose sectoral bargaining provisions permit network workers to organize. They may seek representation on a tax-exempt industry council, creating collectively bargained recommendations regarding terms and conditions of work. Administration of portable benefit accounts and related funds, including the choice of providers, would be performed by a single nonprofit entity serving all of the industry councils in the state. Meanwhile, the director of the State Board of Labor Relations would maintain a supervisory role over the implementation of negotiated terms and conditions of work.