Utah Lights An Innovative Path To Matching Benefits With Work Realities

This op-ed originally appeared in Real Clear Markets on May 3, 2024.

The emergence of the gig economy has been a defining feature of the last decade as gig workers have emerged to take care of one-off tasks like grocery shopping, food delivery, dog walking, and more. However, as these side hustles have grown in popularity, a growing number of gig workers have come to rely on this nontraditional form of work as their primary source of income. This shift to full time gig work has come at the expense of traditional work-related benefits. That is, until last year, when Utah passed an innovative idea for portable benefits into law. 

The prevailing notion of work fifty years ago was a rigid nine-to-five shift. But the gig economy has transformed the way many think about work, serving as one of many examples of the way workers today can earn on their own terms. Despite this transformation, however, U.S. labor law has hardly budged from its roots in the workplaces of the past. An unintended side effect of this outdated regulatory structure is that full-time gig workers, hardly imagined decades ago, are unable to receive work-related benefits without giving up the flexibility these opportunities afford. 

Fortunately, in 2023, Utah passed SB 233, based on an innovative idea to open up gig worker access to portable benefits. SB 233 is a simple but powerful bill which allows companies in Utah to voluntarily contribute to worker-controlled “portable benefit plans,” without the fear of incurring employer liabilities. These plans were intended to be a diverse set of worker-related benefits that workers could pick-and-choose from, and maintain access to no matter who they work for.

Utah’s voluntary approach clearly deviated from the paths taken by states like California to mandate rideshare company contributions to a limited set of benefits. Yet, despite its near-unanimous bipartisan support in the Utah legislature, some viewed the bill as unrealistic and overly optimistic. However, one year later, and following a collaborative effort between industry, state regulators, academics, and nonprofit research organizations, the portable benefit plans envisioned in Utah’s SB 233 have begun to materialize. 

Recent months have witnessed the first glimpses of company-provided gig worker benefits in practice. Major announcements from delivery companies and investment apps represent a crucial progress toward the sustainability of the gig economy, whereby companies are stepping up to match flexible work with flexible worker benefits. 

But the most promising development to date, Stride Health’s new Portable Benefit Contribution Program, is something more long-term. Stride’s program, launched in Utah, would allow gig economy platforms to contribute to worker-controlled savings accounts which can then be used by workers to choose from a diverse set of benefits. 

Stride’s program is sure to be an industry-leading tool for gig economy platforms to support gig workers, attract better talent, and further legitimize the flexible future of work. But Stride’s decision to launch in Utah is a clear indication of what regulatory reform in labor policy can accomplish, in terms of positive outcomes for workers, when built atop of forward-looking ideas that embrace worker flexibility and industry innovation.

The path forward for gig workers in the U.S.—highlighted by Stride’s new program and the broader movement towards flexible worker benefits—is a future of work that’s not only flexible but also genuinely sustainable. What’s more, the reform passed in Utah, SB 233, offers a blueprint for a more secure and equitable labor market for independent workers.

For other states, and even the federal government, looking to improve the lives of gig workers, the experiences of those in Utah and beyond will serve as a testament to the power of collaboration and innovation in shaping the future of work.