Sen. Larry Walker, R – Perry

Sen. Larry Walker, R – Perry, chairs the first meeting of the Senate Study Committee on Portable Benefits for Independent Workers on Thursday, Oct. 17 at the Georgia State Capitol.

Members of the Georgia Senate met Thursday to address an issue that underlies the growing trend of contracted workers in the country.

Independent workers could make up more than half of the workforce by the next decade, according to a Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll. With the demand for a gig economy comes the growing problem of access to employee benefits.

“It’s a definite challenge for independent workers," Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, said. "It is a challenge to entrepreneurship and people wanting to start a business. Oftentimes, they’re reluctant to do that because they’re getting their benefits through their employer.”

The Senate Study Committee on Portable Benefits for Independent Workers met at the state’s Capitol Thursday to discuss benefit options for contracted workers. Walker and the four other committee members examined the availability of portable benefits in the state at the meeting. The lawmakers will have until Dec.1 to report their findings.

Benefits can include health care, short-term disability and paid time off. Unlike traditional benefits, portable benefits are connected to the individual instead of the organization. A handful of states have established portable paid leave for workers.

Outside of employers, workers in Georgia currently have access to Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation, better known as COBRA, the federal health care exchange and association plans, according to Bruce Shaw, a longtime insurance consultant.

COBRA allows workers to continue their employee benefits after job loss, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

The federal health care exchange is part of the Affordable Care Act supported by former President Barrack Obama. The exchange allows people to select packages and premiums based on their income. Some patients could be eligible for subsidies if they meet the requirements. Shaw said many companies have opted to use the federal marketplace.

Jesse Weathington of Georgia Association of Health Plans said Georgia has the fifth-highest number of federal exchange enrollees.

“One of the express aims of the Affordable Care Act was to sever the link between employment and health insurance coverage,” Weathington said.

Georgians can also get access to multiple employer welfare arrangements. The plans allow small employers to join together and create a large benefit program. The programs are regulated by the state.

However, about 60 percent of Georgia’s employed labor force is uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Walker said he wants to look at the prices of the available programs and establish which ones are accessible for independent workers.

The committee's next meeting will be on Oct. 30.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.