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Washington State Considers 'Portable Benefits' For Non-Traditional Workers

Washington state lawmakers are trying to figure out how to make benefits such as health insurance and retirement funds more accessible to people in the gig economy. 

There is a bill in the state House of Representatives that would introduce a system of "portable benefits" that follow workers from job to job.

By one estimate, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said "contingent" workers could make up as much as 40 percent of the workforce. That includes everyone from Uber drivers to freelancers to day laborers. 

It can be harder for those workers to get benefits because they usually don't come from an employer. That's why some say the state should provide the framework for those benefits.

SEIU Local 775 President David Rolf is one of the advocates of portable benefits where contributions could be made per transaction or shift.

"So that even if you're in this kind of wild west of the gig economy with no standard employer, that you still have access to the basics like workers' comp and unemployment insurance, sick days, vacation time, and things like health and retirement benefits," Rolf said. 

The idea has some buy-in from businesses. Uber recently co-signed an open letter with Rolf and Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer supporting the concept of portable benefits.

Still, there are a lot of questions as to how the system might work.

"We have no real expertise in regulating retirement insurance or banking functions, for example. And there's the whole section around how you define an 'independent contractor' or not that has another series of questions for us," Department of Labor and Industries Legislative Director Tammy Fellin testified at a recent House committee hearing.

Critics say such benefits are already available even if employers don't already provide them. 

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.