In an employment landscape in which only 17 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave and a growing number of part-time and low-wage workers are least likely to have those benefits, some states are working to allow workers to take their benefits with them, regardless of their employer or their classification.

Six states and the District of Columbia have passed family and medical leave laws that allow workers paid time off for the birth of a child, for an illness, or to care for a family member. But not all programs are equal on portability: States differ on who is eligible for the program, whether through a minimum of hours worked during a qualifying period, or amount of time worked at one employer.

“Over the last few years, we have seen a growth in the prevalence of nontraditional work in the U.S.,” said Libby Reder, senior fellow at the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative. “This has brought attention to a benefits gap that exists between traditional, full-time workers, and nontraditional workers—meaning any type of worker in a part-time role, subcontracting, on-call, or temporary role.”

The paid leave programs in Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are designed so that people who work multiple jobs are eligible for benefits. California, New York, D.C., Washington, and Massachusetts allow self-employed workers to opt into the paid family and medical leave program. New Jersey and Rhode Island don’t have the same access for self-employed workers.

Portability has become an issue because many low-wage workers, in particular, work different jobs or change jobs frequently, said Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a pro-worker advocacy group. “There are so many benefits that don’t apply to them because they don’t have enough employment with one company for long enough.”

Paid family leave, though, is “very amenable to this portability,” Leiwant said.

“There are some benefits where it doesn’t matter what your classification is, you should just get them.”

Washington Out Front

Washington is the most recent state to enact a paid family and medical leave program. Employer and employee contributions to the paid family and medical leave program began this year, and starting Jan. 1, 2020, workers will be able to use paid leave for the birth of a child, a medical illness, or to care for a family member.

Portability was one of the first pieces of the benefit lawmakers and plan architects discussed, said Nick Streuli, legislative director of the Washington Employment Security Department. Legislators used the state’s portable unemployment benefits as a model for the paid family and medical leave program, he said.

“The portability that we have, and that is baked into the program, is designed so that people don’t have to win the boss lottery in order to access this benefit,” said Suzan LeVine, commissioner for the Washington State Employment Security Department. “Every worker has a way to access this benefit. You need 820 hours to qualify, and you could compose that from 820 different employers if you need to.”

The state’s program is one of the broadest for participation, too: Self-employed workers can opt in, part-time workers can amass hours to be eligible from multiple jobs, and independent contractors also have a path to benefits.

Gig workers most likely would fall under the latter category. When they apply for benefits, the agency will look at workers’ employment contracts on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they qualify as independent contractors, LeVine said.

LeVine said she hopes efforts to cover all workers will influence other states to do the same. “Washington state is the first to roll this out where it’s not built on temporary disability insurance, so the other states are looking at us on how to build this from scratch.”

Awareness, Participation Challenges

Bringing nontraditional workers into the program can present some unique challenges to states.

Workers must be aware of available benefits. Independent contractors and self-employed workers, in particular, don’t have a natural point of contact for information, such as an HR office, according to the Aspen Institute’s Reder.

“There are not many natural aggregation points of these workers, the majority of independent contractors are hard to reach. Benefits providers are very accustomed to using employer channels to create awareness of benefits,” Reder said. “This is a place that’s demanding a lot of ingenuity and creativity.”

The next challenge is creating a program that prevents people from taking advantage of leave options without paying into the system appropriately.

In Washington, for example, self-employed workers can opt into the state plan, but they must participate for an initial period of three years and then for an additional year after leave is taken. “The concern was that the individual has to pay into the system that they will use. We don’t want them to participate just to take the leave and go,” LeVine said.