The decisive win for Proposition 22 in California on November 3 shows a likely majority of voters—even in the most progressive states—see the value of flexible work that allows people to generate income on demand. That value has only grown amid an ongoing economic crisis that has hammered employment in nearly every industry in New York and left thousands searching for immediate opportunities to earn income.
Rather than repeat California’s tumultuous past year, New York’s leaders should learn from it and deliver what voters are asking for: a bold plan to ensure that independent workers in all sectors can access universal, portable benefits, gaining financial security without losing flexible work.
It was just over a year ago that California passed Assembly Bill 5 into law, which established strict guidance on classifying workers as independent contractors and challenged the ability of app-based platforms to operate. California’s new ballot measure reverses course, allowing app-based drivers to work as independent contractors while extending a range of benefits—and earning the support of workers, tech companies, and voters.
In New York and across the nation, the problem has grown increasingly clear. Far too many workers in the gig economy live in a state of perpetual financial precarity. Few have access to the benefits that typically flow from full-time employment — including health care, worker’s compensation, paid leave, life insurance, retirement savings, and more.
The result is an unacceptable level of risk for workers and their families, and the potential for the further erosion of the middle class.
But faced with so many obstacles to an inclusive economic recovery, tackling this challenge shouldn’t require a knock-down, drag-out fight. Instead, New York policymakers should bring together workers and industry to establish a universal system of portable benefits for the future workforce.
This system would allow New Yorkers to tap into the flexible, income-generating opportunities that gig platforms are providing — even amid a major economic downturn — while ensuring that independent workers have the financial security to thrive.
Under this system, benefits from health care to retirement accounts would move with independent workers from job to job. Freelancers, gig economy workers, and other independent contractors would have the ability to access a wide range of benefits through a regulated exchange, including offerings from established companies, nonprofit organizations, unions, start-ups, and government. As is the case in Oregon and California, employers and platform companies should make substantial financial contributions to at least some of these benefits.
To ensure that lower-wage workers are equally supported, legislators could levy a small surcharge on services rendered through app-based platforms—similar to New York’s current Black Car Fund—with the revenue used to cover any employee contributions to portable benefits for lower-income workers.
New York policymakers are not alone. Recent initiatives in Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Philadelphia demonstrate growing support for the portable benefits framework—with Oregon’s approach showing particular promise.
Now New York has the opportunity to fit all of these pieces together into a visionary, integrated system: taking decisive action to rebuild a more inclusive economy while gaining a major competitive advantage over other states where the future of independent work is in doubt.
As California’s experience with AB 5 and now Proposition 22 makes clear, the most effective path forward is to create systems that support the financial security of independent workers — not limit their existence.
Winston C. Fisher is co-chair of New York City’s Regional Economic Development Council. Eli Dvorkin is the editorial and policy director for the New York City-based Center for an Urban Future.