Ontario urged to adopt portable benefits plan model

by Leo Almazora14 Dec 2021

To support its status as a competitive destination for workers in the years and decades to come, Ontario must consider implementing a new benefits programs model that’s tied to workers rather than their employers, according to a new report.

In its report title The future of work in Ontario, which was released on December 10, the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee (OWRAC) offered 21 recommendations to modernize the laws governing work and the programs supporting the different types of workers in the province as they move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

One recommendation suggested that the province select an expert to design a portable benefits program to which employers, workers, and government could contribute.

“There is an opportunity for Ontario to be an innovator in designing and delivering a new type of portable benefits strategy tied to workers, not employers,” the report said. “Such a program could better support worker mobility.”

The report’s authors cited an Ipsos study commissioned by RBC Insurance, where 38% of Ontario residents surveyed said they realized in the past year that their employers’ benefits program did not adequately meet their needs. In the same study, three in 10 respondents reported having no prescription drug coverage at all.

Around two thirds (67%) of Ontario residents surveyed agreed that attracting and keeping people in Ontario means having government benefits available based on where they live, not for whom they work.

The committee also referred to a report by the Public Policy Forum that called on governments, both federal and provincial, to “conduct detailed analysis of the costs and benefits as well as the feasibility of a portable benefits model. They also noted that other jurisdictions are looking into portable benefits programs, including the U.S. where a bill called the Portable Retirement and Investment Account Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate.

"A portable benefits program could increase benefit levels and access in areas such as pharmacare, life insurance, vision care and mental health services," the report added. "One option might see portable benefits reside with the worker and be administered by an independent body, through government, the private sector, or some combination."

In a related proposal, OWAC recommended creating a new category of dependent contractor under the Employment Standards Act to accommodate people working for online platforms who don’t get the same rights as regular employees. With the new classification, such app-based workers would be given “basic employment rights such as termination pay, minimum wage, minimum or core benefits, regular payment of wages, pay stubs for pay accountability and notice of termination with severance entitlements.”

In an interview with CBC News, Wendy Cukier, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Ryerson University, explained how workers in the platform economy have fallen through the cracks.

"Racialized people, newcomers, and so on, are often forced into these kinds of survival jobs," said Cukier, who has looked into the evolving nature of gig employment as the academic research lead for the Future Skills Centre. "They're often the ones that are the most vulnerable because they don't have the labour protections.”

She expressed concerns over employers using gig work to bypass labour laws, especially as access to pensions, unemployment insurance, and other supports afforded to regular workers have not been developed. But with a portable benefits model, workers who move from job to job will have a new world of opportunity open to them.

"The old model of working for one employer for 30 years, that's sort of gone by the wayside," she said to CBC News.