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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 for themselves and their kids.”

Specifics of 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.

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.”

That panel, with names to be announced in the coming weeks, will begin their work in March, consulting with employers, labour leaders, workers and international experts, McNaughton said. 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 that 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.

McNaughton said the province estimates that millions of workers are currently without health and other benefits, and the government wants to close that gap.

“Nobody in a province as prosperous as Ontario should have to choose between their health, their next meal or putting a roof over their head,” he 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 from the report later on.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) said the announcement fell short, noting that there was no mention of retirement benefits or pensions for gig workers.

“We are concerned that the introduction of this scheme will mean the further misclassification of gig workers as ‘self-employed,’ rather than employees who deserve the full and equal rights afforded to all workers,” said Patty Coates, OFL President, in a statement. “Without offering full and equal rights to gig workers this proposal is really about further excluding them from minimum employment standards and access to existing statutory benefits.”