The concept of employee benefits was established on a foundation built decades ago, when employees worked full time and long term with one employer.

Those days are long gone. Temporary, part-time and gig work have become the norm, accounting for 60 per cent of job growth in advanced economies since the 1990s.

Gig work is popular in sectors such as the arts, entertainment and recreation and it’s also more prevalent among immigrants than workers born in Canada. In 2016, 10.8 per cent of male immigrant workers who had been in Canada for less than five years were gig workers, compared with 6.1 per cent of male Canadian-born workers, according to data from Statistics Canada. It also found, as of January, landed immigrants represented roughly 56 per cent of ride-share and delivery drivers.

Read: Head to head: Should the design of portable benefits plans consider the role of employers?

Research by the Future Skills Centre has determined racialized people, newcomers and other vulnerable workers are often forced into precarious jobs or gig work, without access to health benefits provided to full-time employees.

Amid the growing gig economy, as well as workers’ calls for increased flexibility and a volatile labour market, there’s increasing demand for portable benefits.

Specifically, portable benefits can provide inclusive wellness supports and access to pensions for all workers; support newcomer integration; remove barriers to employment for people who receive social assistance and are at risk of losing government-provided benefits upon acceptance of a job offer; and help ensure women, who often face more career interruptions than men, have enough money in retirement.

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

Governments are introducing a range of programs to improve access and portability of benefits. A 2021 Ontario government report noted portable benefits “could help businesses attract workers and make their futures less uncertain.” In February 2022, the province announced a portable benefits advisory committee, which is expected to provide recommendations on the design and implementation of portable benefits later this year.

In British Columbia, the provincial government promised in 2020 to create a collective benefits fund to support precarious workers. This year, a series of province-wide roundtables are working to develop a strategy for supporting precarious workers and the gig economy, including portable benefits.

In the U.S., several private sector organizations, social enterprises and unions have moved into the portable benefits space, creating opportunities for new collaborations and public-private partnerships. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government introduced the Cares Act o grant non-traditional workers access to state-administered unemployment insurance programs for the first time.

Read: B.C.’s NDP developing benefits, pension supports for gig workers

New York state’s Black Car Fund allows taxi and ride-sharing drivers — all of whom are considered independent contractors under state law — to receive workers’ compensation. The statute requires that 2.5 per cent of every for-hire vehicle ride be allocated to this fund.

While there’s still much work to be done to deliver portable benefits in Canada, this approach could promote a more equitable and inclusive country.