Warner: Need data on gig workers’ ability to access medical care

mark warner newU.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has urged the Department of Labor to start collecting information on access to essential benefits for all workers in the economy, including contingent workers and those in alternative work arrangements, such as gig workers.

This request comes after the Centers for Disease Control issued social distancing guidance for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, recommending that Americans work remotely, stay home when ill, and seek medical care when infected – underscoring the vulnerability of many Americans working without access to basic safety net protections traditionally provided by full-time employment.

“As The Washington Post recently wrote, gig workers – and contingent workers more broadly – are likely the most vulnerable workers to a potential spread of the coronavirus,” wrote Sen. Warner in a letter to Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia. “They may be working without access to a healthcare plan or paid sick leave. As a consequence, they’re not likely to follow the CDC’s coronavirus recommendations. They may not go to the doctor when they are sick for lack of insurance and they may not stay home due to loss of income.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.1 percent of the labor force – roughly 15 million workers in the U.S. – are engaged in alternative employment arrangements as their primary form of occupation. Currently, there is no BLS data detailing what percentage of those workers have access to benefits that can be essential during an outbreak, such as paid sick leave, access to health care and the ability to work remotely.

“Our American system of social insurance should not be a benefit we offer to the most privileged of workers. The entire premise of the Affordable Care Act was to solidify that basic access to healthcare should not be conditional on worker status, sector of employment, or take-home pay – every American should have access to affordable healthcare,” he continued. “In the U.S. Congress, I have advocated for experimentation of a portable benefits system for independent workers that would include a broader set of worker benefits. It seems increasingly clear that – for certain workers – not having access to benefits that are portable, that they can take from job to job and gig to gig, is a public health issue for the rest of American society.”

In his letter, Sen. Warner also noted the lack of access to benefits for traditional, low- to middle-wage workers, who are less likely to take leave even if they need it, because they cannot afford the loss of income or fear negative employment repercussions. According to a March 2019 Employee Benefits Survey, only 44 percent of service sector workers, 23 percent of part-time workers, and 37 percent of workers in the bottom quartile of wages have access to a healthcare plan.

Additionally, only 43 percent of service sector workers, 23 percent of part-time workers, and 56 percent of workers in the bottom quartile of earnings have access to some type of paid leave.

Sen. Warner has led the effort in Congress to try to prepare workers for shifting nature of work, particularly as it pertains to access to benefits. Last year, he reintroduced four pieces of legislation to support Americans in our evolving workforce.

This included two bills to encourage employers to invest in worker training and education, a bill to expand access to mortgages for those with non-traditional work arrangements, and a bill to allow states, localities and nonprofit organizations to experiment with portable benefits for the growing independent workforce.

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