Skip to content

Ontario designing 'portable benefits' plan for workers who don't have coverage


Ontario intends to develop a "portable benefits" system for workers who don't have health, dental or vision coverage, with the package intended to move with the individuals if they change jobs. 

The concept was recommended in a recent report from an expert committee tasked by the government with addressing labour disruptions from the pandemic. It's intended to cover workers in the gig economy, retail and hospitality jobs who don't have benefits, and accommodate people who may change careers throughout their lives. 

"This is about rebalancing the scales and giving workers the confidence they need to drive their careers forward," Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said in an interview. 

"This is how we're going to ensure that workers have more take-home pay, more workplace protections and more opportunities to build better lives."

Details about how the program will work – such as how it will be funded and who will oversee it – are going to be researched over the coming months, McNaughton said. 

Workers, advocates and experts raised concerns, however, about the lack of specificity in the plan and said the government should instead focus on ensuring gig workers have basic employment standards like minimum wage. 

To start, the province intends to appoint a panel of up to five people with expertise in benefits plans and financial and workplace issues to look into how best to administer the program, and how benefits will "reside with the worker," McNaughton said.

That panel will begin work in March, consulting with employers, labour leaders, workers and international experts. An interim report is expected in July – after the provincial election set for June – and the group will eventually make a final recommendation to government. 

McNaughton said he wants the program to be available to people "as quickly as possible" while allowing time for complex nuances to be explored. He said the Progressive Conservative government is committed to offering benefits for workers who aren't covered, adding he thinks the plan will give Ontario a competitive advantage in attracting workers.

Most workers in Ontario who have full-time permanent jobs have health insurance and dental coverage, the province said, but less than a quarter of people who have part-time or precarious jobs have similar coverage. Those in low-wage jobs, newcomers and younger people are less likely to have workplace benefits, the province said. 

The portable benefits plan was one of 21 recommendations put forward by the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee in its final report published late last year. 

The expert group also recommended that the government force greater transparency in gig work contracts and create a "dependent contractor'' category for app-based gig workers that would guarantee employment rights like severance pay and minimum wage.

McNaughton said the benefits program is his top priority for now but he wants to implement other recommendations later on.

Brice Sopher, a courier and vice-president of Gig Workers United, said his organization is still advocating for gig workers to have access to existing statutory benefits, like the Canada Pension Plan. 

He said workers are concerned that the proposed portable benefits program could require that workers pay for it and see their wages drop as a result, or have some other trade-off baked in. 

"We're kind of skeptical of why it has to be different," he said. "I think it's not going to work without the employment standards. I don't endorse it at all."

Sopher said he's also bothered by the timing of the announcement – with no concrete details to come until after the election – given the dire working conditions many have faced during the pandemic, like COVID-19 infections and lost income.

Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Centre for Future Work in Vancouver, said the "devil is in the details" on the portable benefits ideas, versions of which he noted already exist in some trades like construction. 

But he said the idea "must be rejected" if it's aimed at replacing universal benefits like the Canada Pension Plan, employment insurance, workers' compensation and the Ontario employer health tax – some of which are federal programs. He said the government should focus on "closing loopholes," making gig companies participate in those programs and pay workers fairly. 

"Why is the government moving on this issue right now? Is it to actually make sure that everyone gets health and dental? Or is it because they're being lobbied hard by Uber and other gig platforms to come up with some halfway measure that allows those businesses to pretend that they're being fair?" he said. "I'm worried about the latter."

The Opposition NDP also criticized the Progressive Conservatives for not addressing the benefits gap until after the scheduled election.

"All that was really promised today is that the (Doug) Ford government will do absolutely nothing during their term in office about the millions of Ontarians without decent health benefits," labour critic Peggy Sattler wrote in a statement. 

The Ontario Federation of Labour also raised concerns that the plan would further exclude gig workers from full employment rights. President Patty Coates argued that expanding drug and dental coverage for everyone could help more. 

"Where access to health care is falling short it should be improved to ensure all workers have the support they need. The answer to that challenge is the provision of universal dental care and pharmacare for every Ontarian," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

Looking for Ontario News? viewed on a mobile phone

Check out Village Report - the news that matters most to Canada, updated throughout the day.  Or, subscribe to Village Report's free daily newsletter: a compilation of the news you need to know, sent to your inbox at 6AM.