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Opinion: Who’s going to drive the benefit portability debate?

The industry is losing the kitchen table conversation

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

It dawned on me the other day in front of a large audience, that most of the words coming out of my mouth lately end in “tion.” The three biggies are legislation, regulation and litigation. Sometimes I feel like a broken record hammering home ways companies can win the “Battle of the Tions.” But sometimes that comes at the expense of the other big “tion” that’s giving restaurant operators and retailers constant heartburn these days — the conversation — and that’s a battle we are losing badly.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to keep getting legislative, regulatory and legal victories. Over the last few years, conservatives and their allies in the business community have won the vast majority of these battles. We’re good right now at the electoral table, but real victory comes when we start winning the conversations playing out at kitchen tables around the country. Check the scoreboard. We’ve got some serious catching up to do.

Take minimum wage for example. While only a handful of jurisdictions have actually passed minimum wage increases, the $15 and hour wage issue is at the center of the conversation. Polling consistently demonstrates that an overwhelming percentage of the population supports significant increases in the minimum wage and the closer you get to urban centers, the higher the support. And at the same time, the realities of the labor marketplace are putting upward pressure on wages and benefits anyway.

Companies like Walmart, Disney, Yum! and others are seeing this and raising their base pay and/or benefit rates not to score PR points with electeds and other stakeholders. They are doing it to effectively compete in the labor marketplace to attract and retain the talent they need. Same with paid leave. These companies understand completely how we are “winning” legislative battles, while losing cultural, social, human resource and economic wars. Winning battles, losing wars. Playing checkers, not chess. Pick your favorite metaphor.

To be clear, I am not advocating companies do anything to their business models: What I am saying unequivocally is that the new economy and the new labor marketplace may make the old definitions of winning and losing irrelevant, and it’s worth a close examination by business leaders.

The future of employee benefits is a good example of this. The on-demand economy is as indifferent to committing to a full-time work force as millennials are to committing to long-term tenures with employers. Both sides of the ledger are becoming increasingly transactional, increasingly short-term and both increasingly desire flexibility. And there has always been a great deal of consensus on the right that benefits should not be tied to employers. But now there is similar growing consensus on the left that benefit portability is key to addressing worker needs in the new economy.

None other than David Rolf, the godfather of the Fight for $15 campaign, is becoming an increasing vocal advocate of benefit portability and de-linking full-time employment from benefits. He argues that the average worker in the emerging on-demand economy may hold any number of part-time jobs both by design of the employer community and the need for flexibility. He may work a few shifts a week at a hotel front desk, pick up some odd jobs through TaskRabbit, drive a couple of shifts a week with Uber, and may or may not be going to school. But under the current system, he will never accrue enough full-time hours in any one place to qualify for benefits — either health insurance or sick leave. But if he accrues benefits per hour worked, paid for by some level of employer assessment or tax (that likely would be largely tax deductible) he can accrue the benefit level he needs.

Whether that approach makes sense or is economically plausible is another discussion. I don’t pretend to have the expertise to break it down and know whether it can work. But what I do know is that the conversation is relevant. It’s intensely aware of the emerging forces shaping our economy and our workforce. It’s in sync with the reality that the part-time/independent contractor genie is never going to go back in the bottle. It’s also in sync with the needs of workers which makes it socially and thus politically viable, eventually. And for restaurant and retail operators, it’s an opportunity to put their mark on — and potentially own — an important emerging national issue.

I know it often feels like the world is beating on our doors to change our business models. But that’s not necessarily the case. Except for an entrenched group of elected and unelected detractors, customers get our model and support it with their feet, and our employees consistently give the industry pretty high marks. But at the same time, those same groups —elected officials, opinion leaders, our customers, and most importantly our employees of today and tomorrow, rightly expect us to be an engaged part of the solution to pressing economic and social challenges. To be relevant.

A “hell no” strategy is not being relevant. Like dessert, it feels really good for a few minutes and then you wear it forever. And cool, urban progressive restaurateurs pursuing their vision of economic utopia one $15 cocktail at a time isn’t as relevant as you might think either.

Relevance is going to occur when the sensible center of the industry decides that shaping the future model of benefits is a conversation worth engaging in. This is a conversation, if properly approached, doesn’t reflexively make us the boogeyman or diminish us compared to other sectors of the economy. It can highlight our contribution. And it’s one where we could have the debate on our terms for once because we always seem to lose when someone else is dictating the conversation. But one thing is clear — the conversation is coming, like it or not, because it has to. It has nowhere else to go.

What’s less clear is whether the industry decides to jump behind the wheel and drive for once or adopt our usual posture of ignoring it until we get flattened in the crosswalk.

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