Giving gig workers an on-ramp to health care

December 21, 2021 | By Beth Szymkowski

Amber Huyghe loves being her own boss.

A self-described “free spirit” who spent much of her career in radio and the hospitality industry, she left the full-time life to become an independent delivery driver in April 2020: “I like freedom and autonomy over my life.”

Huyghe is among the 16 million Americans who are gig workers — about one in 10 working Americans, a recent Pew Research Center analysis found. And unlike with traditional workers hit hard by COVID-19 lockdowns and job losses in hospitality, travel and retail, the number of self-employed workers has fully rebounded since before the pandemic.  

But going from full-time to gig work usually comes with one big downside — a loss of employer-sponsored benefits, especially health insurance. A study earlier this year found that one in four self-employed people do not have health coverage. The fact is, the nature of work has changed dramatically over the past few decades, but the ways benefits are delivered has not. This has disproportionately impacted low-wage workers and workers of color, making them more vulnerable if a medical emergency strikes.  

The current benefits system doesn’t always work well for full-time workers either: “For those who lost full-time jobs during the pandemic, they often lost health care benefits at the time when they needed them the most,” says Noah Lang, the co-founder and CEO of Stride Health, a platform that helps independent workers get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and offers other services, including dental and life insurance to people who are essentially running their own businesses.

The ACA now provides 31 million Americans with health insurance. But, Lang argues, while the ACA created the first truly “portable benefit” that you could take from job to job, benefits outside of traditional employment remain confusing and hard to access. “So I set out to solve this challenge for people who worked without benefits,” Lang says.

“My inspiration has always been to help people make smarter, faster decisions about their insurance and financial needs so they can get back to earning — knowing they’d made the best decision and could rely on that safety net when they need it.”

As one core part of its benefits platform, Stride essentially simplifies the process of applying for ACA insurance. For example, when Huyghe initially went on the ACA site to apply for insurance, she identified herself as self-employed. The site then asked her to upload tax documents that she didn’t have because it was a new situation for her.

“So I got denied because I didn’t have the correct paperwork,” she says. When Huyghe received an email about Stride from her delivery platform, she decided to try again. This time she was able to get the insurance in about 30 minutes.

Stride aims to reach workers who may not even realize what’s available. Many gig workers risk not having health insurance, Lang says, “because they don’t think they can afford it, even though four out of five Americans can now get covered for less than ten dollars per month.”

In addition, Stride has partnered with Mastercard with the joint mission to create a Portable Benefits experience that expands access to — and simplifies paying for — coverage for every American without employer-sponsored insurance. Mastercard is providing its customers the ability to offer cardholders in the U.S. access to health, dental and vision benefits through Stride, strengthening the connection between how workers get paid and how they access benefits and ensuring a safety net for more gig workers.

Stride is continuing to expand its offerings for gig workers — the fastest growing part of the business is its tax and expense management app — but the portable benefits model may take hold in even more traditional situations. For example, many employers are starting to offer ways for employees to pick their own coverage.

“Imagine a world,” Lang says, “in which you can change jobs but never have to switch health plans or 401(k) providers.”

Beth Szymkowski, contributor