Work Benefits: Ensuring Economic Security in the 21st Century

By Nell Abernathy, Rebecca Smith |

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The growth of digitally mediated gig or “on-demand” work, such as driving for Uber or shopping for Instacart, has prompted a national conversation about how and when we work, how we are paid, and what obligations businesses and workers have to one another. The questions raised by on-demand work are, in fact, symptoms of much broader negative trends in American employment. The employment model that built economic security for many during the 20th century—often a unionized job that provided a pension, health benefits, Social Security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance—has become increasingly out of reach. This report outlines a set of principles to guide the ongoing debate about how to expand economic security for the many who cannot currently rely on a job-based system of benefits.

We believe the rise of on-demand work has spotlighted challenges faced by a large share of American workers who do not receive job-based benefits and do not have a public safety net on which to rely. As part of this trend, we’ve witnessed increased political support for universalizing benefits once tied to the workplace. Nationally we’ve passed the Affordable Care Act, and state-level campaigns are finding continued success passing new programs to provide paid sick and family leave to all workers. It is now well past time to reimagine the existing, employment-based social contract and develop new institutions to provide economic security to workers in the 21st century. While many reports on the changing nature of work have provided typologies of models for portable benefits or enhanced economic security, we believe the value of this report is our articulation of a broad principled vision of the future. This agenda has three core components: we must expand the public safety net, support new models of negotiated benefits, and ensure business and public funds supplement the contributions of workers and consumers.

Nell Abernathy is the Roosevelt Institute's Vice President of Research and Policy. She co-authored Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy.

Rebecca Smith is the Deputy Director of the National Employment Law Project, helping to shape its policy agenda to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections for low-wage workers and the unemployed.