As Ontario eyes a new system of portable benefits for precarious workers, one expert says these benefits can be an important attraction and retention tool for employers, while another believes employee considerations should be prioritized amid the rise of the gig economy.

Laura Williams, founder and managing partner, Williams HR Law LLP

Like anything when it comes to the workplace, employers want to make sure they’re offering options to employees that make sense.

Employees are accessing benefits by virtue of what employers are setting up in terms of their overall total rewards offering, so if benefits are portable between employers, they still have to be attractive to employees or have different aspects that employers can showcase as beneficial. Often, employers don’t do a good job communicating benefits that can be converted at the end of the employment relationship so employees can continue to use the coverage.

Read: Freedom of design, stability top employer concerns around proposed portable benefits plans

Indeed, employees often have no knowledge of the full scope of what they can opt into, convert and port. I’ve seen situations where employees have been upset by the fact that their employer didn’t let them know they could convert their benefits and that they could still use the coverage following the end of the employment relationship.

Employers should also provide insights to their insurers about what’s considered valuable to their workforces. This piece is really important to ensure the coverage makes sense and is appealing to employees. Often, I think employers offer a scope of coverage that’s a mismatch to their workforce demographic. In addition, so many things have changed in terms of employee expectations and priorities. It’s really critical for insurers to source data through employers with respect to what they’re seeing on the ground.

If employers let employees know what’s available to them by virtue of those additional benefits, it can be seen as a perk that’s an extension of their employment. That’s something a lot of employers don’t really leverage.

Sandeep Kakan, director of pensions and benefits, Unifor

Within the conversations around portable benefits plans, we must recognize there’s a view that the systemic transformation of good paying jobs — typically associated with permanent health and retirement coverage — into lower and unattractive forms of employment should be accepted and that some form of less than adequate coverage will just do.

Recognizing Ontario’s challenging labour market experience during the coronavirus pandemic, Unifor prepared its submission to the province’s Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee to draw attention to the crucial absence of investments in social infrastructure, which would have otherwise cushioned the blow that hard-working Ontarians faced during this period.

Read: Ontario mulling implementing new ‘portable benefits’ for precarious workers

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development demonstrates that, without human capital investment, excessive job polarization rapidly shifting towards insecure or gig work and precarity has resulted in higher inequality that ultimately puts a drag on economic growth and harms opportunities.

A 2019 report by the Brookfield Institute and a 2011 survey by the Ministry of Labour offered warning signs that just 23 per cent of non-standard employed workers — including part-time, temporary, self-employed and gig workers — had medical coverage, compared to 75 per cent in standard and more appealing employment relationships characterized as good paying, secure jobs, away from the margins of the labour market.

Conversations around portable benefits plans are therefore incomplete without discussing worker misclassification as an extension of the court’s view on whether gig employers violate jurisdictional employment standards.

Read: Expert panel: How employers can design health benefits, retirement plans for gig workers