What Are Universal Portable Benefits?

Universal portable benefits offer a guaranteed set of supports to all workers, no matter who their employer is. With their adoption, universal portable benefits will move our state forward in both recognizing and meeting the evolving needs of working Coloradans.

Related: Universal Portable Benefits State Scan

The nature of work has changed dramatically over the past several decades, and with it, the character of our workforce. Today, the average worker remains at his/her job for just over four years, automation necessitates continued worker education and skills training, and a growing contract workforce has resulted in a level of continued insecurity for thousands of workers.

As our workforce has shifted, so too has the social contract that has traditionally bound employers and employees. A more tenuous connection between the two has resulted in a fundamental change to how workers receive benefits. It’s no longer a given workers will have access to the essential building blocks of economic mobility like quality health insurance, retirement savings options, or paid family and medical leave. The Bell Policy Center believes, when taken together, these programs comprise a suite of supports known as universal portable benefits.

What are universal portable benefits?

Sometimes just referred to as “portable benefits,” universal portable benefits are a core set of benefits available to every worker. Importantly, because they’re universal, access it available to all workers, regardless of whether they’re employed by a traditional employer, are an independent or contract worker, work part time, or have seasonal employment.

At a minimum, universal portable benefits provide a baseline that can be built upon to develop a more robust set of tailored worker supports. Though not the only services needed to foster a healthy and prosperous workforce, their creation enables a solid foundation for workplace security and updates the long-standing social contract between businesses and their employees.

Although you may not recognize the name, universal portable benefits aren’t a new concept. From Social Security to the Affordable Care Act, forward-thinking leaders throughout our country’s history have fought to create new workplace standards that respond to the evolving economic conditions of their time.

Impacting both traditional workers and the growing nontraditional workforce — comprised of part-time, contract, and gig workers — our existing system of workplace supports is in sore need of an update. Many of today’s nontraditional workers lack basic benefits, and even traditional workers have seen a decline in benefits previously offered through their employers. Stagnant wages and the growing importance of having two incomes per household only exacerbate the need for all workers to have a reliable set of benefits.

While essential tenets of economic security for today’s workers, universal portable benefits simultaneously help businesses. Most employers recognize the importance of providing their workers quality benefits. For example, doing so’s been shown to increase workplace retention and morale. However, many businesses — especially small businesses — find they can’t afford to self-fund their own employee retirement or paid family and medical leave programs. Universal portable benefits offer an alternative, cost-effective way to provide these supports while simultaneously leveling the playing field and ensuring all employers are playing by the same rules.

The Bell Policy Center believes the following principles are inherent in any universal portable benefit:

  • Universality: We believe these benefits shouldn’t be dependent upon a worker’s employer. Universality ensures accessibility for all workers, no matter how they work or who they work for. This includes those employed in traditional full-time positions, contract and part-time workers, and those working multiple jobs for different employers.
  • Portability: As workers move from job to job with increased regularity, it’s increasingly important these essential benefits are portable. Portability ensures benefits are tied to the worker, instead of the employer. This principle allows employees to take benefits with them as they transition between jobs and work arrangements.
  • Equity: Universal portable benefits are especially important for low-income workers, who are disproportionately people of color. Within today’s systems, these workers are less likely to have access to essential benefits. By prioritizing equity, universal portable benefits are not only open and available to all workers, but proactively include provisions which make them as accessible and meaningful to low-income workers as to their upper- and middle-income peers.

In addition to the inherent principles listed above, we also believe, when possible, universal portable benefits should include:

  • Shared Responsibility: Stagnant wages and growing costs means limited worker access to these benefits, many of which were historically provided by employers. When possible, shared employer/employee financial responsibility is essential to making these supports more accessible and meaningful.

The list of potential universal portable benefits is extensive. We believe the most important fit into several key categories, including:

  • Health care: Both one of the most expensive and necessary components in a household budget, quality health care is essential to the well-being of every Coloradan. The Affordable Care Act was an important step to providing quality, affordable health care to all workers, regardless of their employment situation. However, as too many of us know, much work remains in actualizing the creation and implementation of more fully portable, quality health care options. As a universal portable benefit, this may include the development of a public health care option or an accessible public long-term care insurance program.
  • Family Economic Security: Today’s workers need a host of supports — from child care and quality housing to paid time off — to achieve economic security. We believe the most important of these supports include access to paid family and medical leave and paid sick days, which allow individuals to care for their own needs or those of a loved one when illness or major life events occur and still remain in the workforce. Additionally, we believe workers need access to programs like secure savings accounts, which allow all workers to save for retirement.
  • Education: The economy of today and tomorrow requires workers continuously update their education and training to meet rapidly evolving workforce needs. The creation of portable education accounts, sometimes referred to as lifelong learning accounts, which stay with employees throughout their life will allow workers to proactively build the skills they need to thrive in our changing economy.

growing Momentum & Work Ahead

Nationally, there’s a growing movement of leaders and organizations who recognize our economy is changing and our workforce standards aren’t keeping up. We’re proud to be a part of this national movement calling for the implementation of new, more robust workplace benefits. Other proponents include:

  • Researchers: Groups like the Aspen Institute and Brookings have each separately made the case for the development of portable, universal benefit systems.
  • Businesses: Especially businesses in the gig economy, including Uber, have begun to publicly call for changes in how workers receive necessary benefits like health care or disability insurance.
  • Policymakers: State and national elected leaders have begun introducing legislation to create unique portable benefit systems that meet the evolving needs of today’s workers.

A suite of guaranteed, universal portable benefits is essential to building and supporting the workforce of today and the future. Benefits which meet employees’ health care, economic security, and continuing education needs will update the existent social contract between workers and employers and create a base of supports which can be further tailored to meet each workplace’s own unique needs.

By implementing these standards, we’ll foster an environment that allows all workers to thrive, no matter where or how they work.