Miriam Webster’s definition of the word “portable” refers to something that is able to be easily carried or moved. The dictionary defines “benefits” as something that produces good or helpful results or effects or that promotes wellbeing. It also defines it as a service (such as health insurance) or right (as to take vacation time) provided by an employer in addition to wages or salary. Pretty self-explanatory and easy to understand one might say. However, the term “portable benefits” is one that is a mystery to many, even in the benefits space – and making benefits permanently portable is something that lawmakers have been passing over time and time again.

The current system in place – one wherein key social safety net benefits such as health care, retirement, sick leave, parental leave, and more are tied to employment – was actually created in the 1940s. It started with the 1942 Stabilization Act, which was designed to limit employer’s freedom to raise wages and thus compete on the basis of pay for scarce workers. However, the actual result of the act was that employers began to offer health benefits as incentives instead – and so began the modern era of employer-sponsored health insurance. The system continued to evolve in the 50s and 60s, with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, but to this day, employer sponsored health care is the number one way that people in the U.S. get their coverage.

But the way we work has drastically changed in the days since World War II. No longer are people working at the same company for 30-40 years, collecting their hard-earned pensions from that company and retiring. More often, we see people working multiple jobs, switching jobs often and, particularly since the pandemic, striking out on their own as freelancers, consultants, small business owners, and more. But our benefits system has barely changed.

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