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The Ontario government is looking at ways to implement a benefits program for workers whose jobs do not provide them with benefits like a drug plan or dental and vision care.

Details of how the program would be administered, who would contribute to it and what category of workers would be eligible are not yet known. The Labour Ministry will appoint a five-person expert panel this spring to research the design of the program, which it is calling a portable benefits strategy.

Monte McNaughton, the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, told The Globe and Mail the program will be targeted at independent contractors, newcomers to the province and part-time employees, who are less likely to have workplace benefits.

“I think of people running cash registers in retail stores, serving tables and those in the gig economy,” he said. “There are more and more people working in those jobs, and I want to ensure they have benefits to support themselves and their families.”

The portable benefits idea echoes a suggestion made in December by the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, an independent body appointed by the government to study issues related to the future of work.

The committee’s report recommended that the government appoint experts to design and test a portable benefits program, which could have contributions from employers, the government and workers. “One option might see portable benefits reside with the workers and be administered by an independent body, through the government, the private sector or some combination,” the report said.

Roughly a quarter of Ontario workers do not have a benefits plan provided by their employers, according to data from the Ministry of Labour. Gig economy workers, such as those with app-based services including Uber, DoorDash and Lyft, are independent contractors rather than employees, and therefore not entitled to minimum wage, vacation pay, sick leave or health benefits.

Mr. McNaughton emphasized that his ministry’s benefits proposal could be “especially beneficial” for gig workers and those in the service industry who have more than one employer and switch jobs more frequently.

Gig workers, through unions such as Gig Workers United and the United Food and Commercial Workers, have pushed for better labour standards for years. Many want to be recategorized as employees, so they will be governed, at least in Ontario, by the Employment Standards Act and have the same status as other workers.

Last October, Peggy Sattler, a New Democratic Party MPP, proposed a bill that would institute a three-pronged test for employers to prove their workers are independent contractors. The goal would be to grant gig workers the same rights as other employees.

But in many places, including in Ontario, Uber has opposed the idea of recategorizing its drivers and delivery couriers as employees, saying it would remove the flexibility of gig work.

Last August, the company proposed a program – the Flexible Benefits Fund – under which Uber would contribute to a fund based on the number of hours a driver or delivery courier worked. People could access the fund for things such as health and dental treatment, life insurance and RRSP contributions. In its proposal, Uber recommended that the benefits fund be managed and paid for by platforms, which would provide the data on work hours, but that provincial governments approve it.

Mr. McNaughton said his ministry’s portable benefits program would be an entirely separate idea, and suggested more support for gig workers was on the horizon. “I want every company to know, including Uber, that every worker deserves at least a minimum wage,” he said.

The Progressive Conservative government has announced a slew of labour-related proposals over the past few months that it says would improve conditions for workers in the province. This includes a law to require employers with more than 25 employees to enact a policy that would give workers the right to disconnect from their jobs at the end of the workday.

But the government also voted down bills to provide 10 permanent paid sick days for workers, and delayed a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by three years, among several rollbacks of labour reforms after it took office in 2018.

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