Employment and Jobs

Exploring Portable Benefits: Q&A with New Jersey State Senator Troy Singleton

January 11, 2019  • Alastair Fitzpayne

New Jersey State Senator Troy Singleton represents New Jersey’s 7th legislative district. His primary focus is on job creation, economic development and the needs of New Jersey’s working families. Senator Singleton introduced legislation that would establish a system for portable benefits for workers who provide services to consumers through contracting agents.

Photo Credit: Greg Dohler, NewDEAL

I recently spoke with Senator Singleton at the 2018 NewDEAL Leaders Conference. Below is a Q&A adapted from our conversation exploring how the future of work is changing, what that means for workers, and how portable benefits can address the challenges from the changing nature of work.

AF: What is your take on how work is changing at the national level and in New Jersey?

TS: I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon that work is changing. I think we’re paying attention to it a lot better than we had in the past. We’re seeing already that folks are moving into non-traditional work models looking for flexibility to move themselves forward.

In our state of New Jersey, we’re seeing more and more people looking at non-traditional employment models in order to make ends meet. We’re a pretty expensive state, and people are having to piece together different jobs to help themselves move forward. This gig economy is ground zero in our state. That’s why I’ve been trying to put some guardrails around it.

AF: When people talk about independent work, it’s a pretty amorphous term. How do you describe this population of the workforce?

TS: So many people view Uber or Lyft drivers as the poster children of the gig economy. And while there are certainly a lot, there are also a lot of graphic designers who are piecing together income streams. When you delve into this, you’ll find that there’s a larger population who have traditional full-time jobs and do this to supplement their income. This field of individuals outside of the mainstream is growing and we have to be tracking and cognizant of it, because frankly our labor statistics don’t catch this. They catch the full-time population, but don’t have an accurate picture of who is doing it to supplement their income. So the numbers tend to be greater than we know.

AF: Are there efforts that you’re thinking about in terms of trying to help state and local leaders better understand how many people fall into this category of work?

TS: Let me first give a huge pat on the back to our new Governor in the state of New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy. When I first spoke to him about the void of accurate data, he engaged our Commissioner of Labor to begin surveys to give us a more accurate depiction of what we’re looking at in New Jersey.

I encourage other state policymakers to engage their Governors and Commissioners of Labor to begin to look through survey models to actively go out and make this determination of what this workforce looks like. I predict it will be larger than most of us know, and that will help us determine what policy we need to put in place.

AF: What is the animating principle for you in terms of introducing this portable benefit legislation?

TS: This isn’t an innovative approach. I’m the son of a union Teamster and I’m a union carpenter. Multiemployer health plans are the bedrock of trade unions. There are very few members of my union who work for one company forever. The benefits that you earn move with you. They’re managed by a multiemployer trust fund. Essentially, what the portable benefits model is a similar concept. If you’re not associated with a particular line of work, the benefits that you earn should be able to move with you. That’s why we set this model up the way we have.

The tension with labor on this issue is that our job, as labor, is always to try to organize. If you’re not organizing, you’re not growing. There is no greater organizing tool than a portable benefits model. If you have a whole class of divergent workers, there is an entity that is going to be needed – our proposal talks about a qualified benefit provider (QBP) – to be able to manage those benefits. Within our bill, we say half the makeup of the group overseeing it have to be representatives of the workers. So if you’re an enterprising labor organization, and you see that there’s a whole bunch of Lyft or Uber drivers or graphic designers for instance, and you want to be that QBP, you’re essentially a half a step away from unionizing those groups. This is an incredible organizing tool, a different way of expanding that roster. While it’s not a traditional model of how organizing has been, it’s another tool for organization.

AF: Tell us about where the legislation is in the process in New Jersey and where you see the path going forward.

TS: We’re very excited to have bipartisan support through its first committee hearing. All members of the Senate Labor Committee can see the wisdom of what we’re trying to accomplish. The proposal has moved on to Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee, which I am a member of, where we are hopeful it can get through that process by the end of the year. Our Department of Labor has been working very closely with us because a key question is around the employee / independent contractor conversation. It’s one where if you aren’t looking at it, it can trip up any legislative proposal from moving forward.

We tried to take a step back and be sure to provide workers’ compensation, and from there retirement benefits, health care benefits, or much like the Black Car Fund did with vision benefits in New York, other benefits as appropriate. So you get that other menu that goes in. It is funded similarly with either a percentage of the transaction or a specific $6/hour allotment to each worker for this fund that would be created.

AF: What are the next steps for this portable benefits legislation?

TS: Too often, many of us in policy try to be innovative and be first. Sometimes, you don’t need to create something new, you can build on something that’s already there. We’ve talked about examples in the construction trades and in Hollywood. It exists already. What we need to be mindful of is to think of the population in each of our states who are not reflected in statistics, who go to work each and every day and have no social safety net. We need to begin to speak to their concerns. If you marry it up with the idea that what we’re doing has already been done and has been shown to be a success in our society, then the next logical step is transferring that practice over to those working in the growing gig economy.