Workers' Compensation

A Growing Issue in the Gig Economy

Opinions vary on the best way to ensure that gig economy workers have access to workplace injury and illness coverage.
By: | June 29, 2017 • 5 min read

The rapid growth in the gig economy has many companies taking a closer look at their workers’ comp policies.

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Some experts say there is a need for alternative or universal coverage arrangements to protect companies from liabilities and workers from injuries while performing on-demand jobs. Legislators in New York, Washington and other places are considering systems that would require online platforms to pay into workers’ benefit funds.

While such issues will be debated at the state level, there is growing consensus that the growing volume of gig economy workers will necessitate a new model that offers portable and universal workers’ comp.

Blurring Lines

On-demand platforms and companies that use such workers may be at risk for misclassifying their employees as independent contractors.

In October 2016, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries ordered San Francisco delivery company Postmates to retroactively pay two years of workers’ comp premiums.

And since its inception, regulators in many states have questioned Uber’s classification of drivers as independent contractors.

Gig economy jobs are typically defined as those where workers connect with clientele through a digital platform.

These new work platforms are increasingly blurring the lines, not only for Uber drivers but for the tens of millions of tech and administrative workers who work remotely from their homes.

Most companies that use such models, such as Uber, Upwork and TaskRabbit, serve as an intermediary between the worker and customer.

Jared Staver, attorney, Staver Law Group

Jared Staver, an attorney with Staver Law Group in Chicago, Ill., said the distinction between employee and contractor has become a growing source of debate in the gig economy. Companies that misclassify workers as independent contractors could face fines, be forced to retroactively pay workers’ comp premiums, and have no protection in the event of an injury lawsuit.

“If it’s determined you didn’t carry comp insurance [and were required to], you can then be taken to civil court where there are no caps on the amount of money that someone can recover,” Staver said.

The difference between an employee and a contractor isn’t exactly black and white and can come down to the state, legal opinions and factors such as how the work is done, who provides the tools and equipment, and how work is scheduled.

Staver said these new work platforms are increasingly blurring the lines, not only for Uber drivers but for the tens of millions of tech and administrative workers who work remotely from their homes.

“It ultimately comes down to control over the worker, and that’s a big question in many of these new jobs,” Staver said.

Calls for a “Third Class” of Worker

A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that up to 20 percent of employers in some industries misclassify workers as independent contractors.

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John Rehm, attorney at the law firm of Rehm, Bennett & Moore in Lincoln, Neb., said while misclassification has been common in fields like driving, cleaning and construction, it “seems to be a part of the business model” for many of these new companies.

Uber’s business model is specifically designed to position drivers as contractors by ensuring they use their own vehicles and by allowing them to work when they want through the app. Yet Rehm said many gig economy models leave workers unprotected and companies exposed to wage and hour litigation.

Many experts say the growing on-demand economy calls for a new classification of worker to meet the needs of both business and worker.

John Rehm, attorney, Rehm, Bennett & Moore

Deborah Berkowitz, Senior Fellow at the National Employment Law Project, said the employment model built 100 years ago provided things like pensions, health benefits, Social Security, workers’ comp and unemployment insurance.

Some states are already trying to address the issue. In New York, the state-run Black Car Fund offers workers’ compensation benefits to participating member’s drivers. Uber is now required to participate in the fund and charges an additional 2.4 percent for each fee.

“Workers’ comp benefits work best when it has universal coverage. We actually think many [gig economy] workers are employees for the purchase of worker’s comp,” Berkowitz said.

Portable and Universal Policies

Rehm said instituting a third class of worker could present challenges, including the fact that it would likely lead to more litigation about how workers are classified.

Any policies to cover gig economy workers would also need to be portable and universal to meet the needs of gig economy workers. As many of these workers perform services for multiple platforms, their sources of income can be scattered through multiple companies and across state lines.

“If you are hurt at a part-time job or a gig job, comp only pays you based on the wages for that job. It doesn’t pay you for wages lost in other jobs because of the work injury in another job,” Rehm said.

Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow, National Employment Law Project

Berkowitz said the Affordable Care Act has already opened up citizens and businesses to the idea of portable benefits, and that New York’s model could be replicated in other states.

NELP recently collaborated with the Roosevelt Institute to produce a paper on worker benefits and said there is growing political support for making universal many benefits once tied to the workplace.

Legislators in Washington posed a bill earlier in the year that would require such platforms and contracting companies to make contributions to a portable benefit fund equal to 25 percent of a worker’s income, or up to $6 per hour.

And the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act introduced in May would allocate funds under the Department of Labor to make grants to state for testing and piloting portable benefit programs.

“We do think there’s a growing need for a third class of worker but there is also a sense that we need to expand the public safety net and think about [other] benefits,” Berkowitz said.

Craig Guillot is a writer and photographer, based in New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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R&I Profile

Achieving Balance

XL Catlin’s Denise Balan stays calm and focused when faced with crisis.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 6 min read

In the high-stress scenario of kidnap or ransom, the first image that comes to mind isn’t necessarily a yoga mat — at least, not for most.

But Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin, who practices yoga every day, would swear by it.

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“I looked at these opposing aspects of my life,” she said. “Yoga is about focus, balance, clarity of intent. In a moment of stress, how do you respond? The more clarity and calmness you maintain, the better positioned you are to provide assistance in moments of crisis.

“Nobody wants to be speaking to a frenetic person when either dealing with a dangerous situation or planning for prevention of a situation,” she added.

“There’s a poem by [Rudyard] Kipling on that,” added Balan’s colleague Ben Tucker. “What it boils down to is: If you can remain calm, you can manage through a crisis a lot better.”

Tucker, who works side by side with Balan as head of U.S. terrorism and political violence, XL Catlin, has seen how yoga influences his colleague.

“The way Denise interacts with stakeholders in this process — she is very professional and calm in the approach she takes.”

Yin and Yang

Sometimes seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. In Balan’s life, yoga and K&R have become her yin and yang.

She entered the insurance world after earning a juris doctor degree and practicing law for a few years. The switch came, she said, when Balan realized she wasn’t enjoying her time as a commercial litigator.

Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

In her new role, she was able to use her legal background to manage litigation at AIG, where her transition from law to insurance took place. She started her insurance career in the environmental sector.

In a chance meeting in 2007, Balan met with crisis management underwriters who told her about kidnap and ransom products.

She was hooked.

Because of her background in yoga, Balan liked the crisis management side of the job. Being able to bring the calmness and clearness of intent she practiced during yoga into assisting clients in planning for crisis management piqued her interest.

She then joined XL Catlin in July 2013, where she built the K&R team.

As she became more immersed in her field, Balan began to notice something: The principles she learned in yoga were the same principles ex-military and ex-law enforcement practiced when called to a K&R-related crisis.

She said, “They have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.”

“K&R responders have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Many understand yoga to be, in itself, one type of meditation, but yoga actually encompasses a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices. Each is a discipline. Some forms of yoga focus on movement and breathing, others focus on posture and technique. Some yoga is meant to relax the mind and create a sense of calmness; other yoga types make participants sweat.

After having her second child and working full-time, Balan wanted to find something physical and relaxing for herself; a friend suggested yoga. During her first lesson, Balan said she was enamored with it.

“I felt like I’d done it all my life.”

She dove into the philosophy of yoga, adopting the practice into her daily routine. Every morning, whether Balan is in her Long Island home or on a business trip, she pulls out her yoga mat to practice.

“I always travel with my mat,” she said. “Daily practice is the simplest form of connection to routine to maintain my balance — physically and mentally.”

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She said the strangest place she has ever practiced was in Lisbon. She was on a very narrow balcony with a bird feeder swarming with sparrows overhead.

After years of studying and practicing, Balan is considered a yogi — someone who is highly proficient in yoga. She attends annual retreats with her yoga group, where she is able to rejuvenate, ready to tackle any K&R event when she returns.

In 2016, Balan visited Tuscany, Italy, where she learned the practice of yoga nidra, a very deep form of meditation. It’s described as the “going-to-sleep stage” — a type of yoga that brings participants to a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.

“It awakens a different part of your brain,” Balan commented. “Orally describing it doesn’t quite do it justice. One has to practice Nidra to fully understand the effect it has on your being.”

Keeping a level head during a crisis is key in their line of business, Tucker said. He can attest to the benefit of having a yogi on board.

“I’ve seen her run table-top exercises where there is this group of people in a room and they run an exercise, a simulation of a kidnap incident. Denise is very committed to what we’re doing,” said Tucker.

“She brings that energy. She doesn’t get flustered by much.”

Building a K&R Program

When Balan joined XL Catlin, she was tasked with creating the K&R team.

Balan during a retreat in Sicily, Italy, 2017

She spent time researching and analyzing what clients would want in their K&R coverage. What stuck out most to Balan was the fact that, in these situations, the decision to purchase kidnap and ransom cover is rarely made because of desire for reimbursement of money.

“I asked why people buy this type of coverage. The answer was for the security responders,” she said.

“These are the people who sit with the family. They’re similar to psychologists or priests,” Balan further explained. “Corporations can afford to pay ransom. They buy [K&R] because it gives them access to these trained and dedicated professionals who not only provide negotiation advice, but actually sit with a victim’s family, engaging deep levels of emotional investment.”

“I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Balan described these responders as people having total clarity of purpose, setting their intentions to resolve a crisis — a practice at the very heart of yoga. She knew XL Catlin’s new kidnap program would put stock in their responders.

“I’ve worked closely with the responders to better understand what they can do for our clientele. These are the people who run into danger — warrior hearts married to dedication to our clients’ best interests.”

But K&R is more than fast-paced crisis and quick thinking; Balan also spent a good deal of time writing the K&R form and getting the company’s resources in order. This was a huge task to tackle when creating the program from the ground up.

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“A lot of my day-to-day is speaking with brokers and finding ways to enhance our product,” she said.

After a few months, she was able to hire the company’s first K&R underwriter. From there, the program has grown. It’s left her feeling professionally rewarded.

“People don’t often get that opportunity to build something up from scratch,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience — rewarding and fun.”

“She brings groups of people together,” said Tucker. “She’s created a positive environment.”

Balan’s yogi nature extends beyond the office walls, too. Her pride and joy, she said, are her kids. And while it may seem like two large parts of her life are opposite in nature, Balan’s achieved balance through her passions.

“[Yoga] has given me the ability to see beyond only one aspect of any situation” she said. “I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” &

Autumn Heisler is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]