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NATIONAL | winter 2002


Portable Health Care for Independent Workers

Ms. Winter 2002

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Ms. Magazine Digest
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Imagine health insurance as a laptop-- portable, relatively affordable, and built to last. That's what two pioneering women are trying to achieve. Sara Horowitz, executive director of Working Today, garnered the spotlight after finding a way to provide health insurance for 15,000 workers left jobless by the September 11 World Trade Center attack.And Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, hasannounced a plan to offer benefits to the Web site's biggest sellers.

At a time when millions of Americans lack health insurance, organizations such as Working Today provide crucial services and advocacy for independent workers, many of whom are women, to ensure they with obtain the health care coverage they need," said Sara K. Gould, executive director of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Similarly, with women-owned businesses starting up at between two and three times Americans the rate of all businesses, considered innovations like Whitman’s plan at eBay are tractors good news for the 6.2 million women business owners in the U.S. and their 9.2 million employees.


Sara Horowitz at Working Today (l); Meg Whitman with Pez dispensers, one of the novelty items that helped launch eBay. Photos by: Joyce Dopkeen (l); Randi Lynn Beach.

Working Today's Portable Benefits Network, which provides health, disability, and life insurance to freelancers in New York City, got off to a slow start after its launch in September 2001. Recently, though, applications have increased dramatically, perhaps in response to press coverage of the organization's post-September 11 program. Consultants, temps, and the self-employed working in a variety of fields-from technology to nonprofit to arts and entertainment-discovered that they could qualify for the benefits.

Traditionally, independent workers-most of whom are without benefits-have primarily been low wage earners, and were predominantly women and/or people of color. Since the 1970s, however, a number of industries such as publishing, media, and financial services have shifted thousands of middle-income employees into the independent worker category.

For Horowitz, who would like to see more government funding for health care, this demographic shift is important. "It's an opportunity to get legislation passed to address benefit needs of both poor and middle-class workers.

History shows that legislative change takes place when middle-class interests also are at stake," said Horowitz.

But her vision for Working Today, a nonprofit organization, goes beyond insurance. "The New Deal safety net is disappearing, and no institutions are in place to handle this change," she said. "At Working Today, we want to have a relationship with people throughout their working lives-providing insurance, defined-benefit retirement plans, even life-long learning skills."

While Horowitz fights for change on the nonprofit front, eBays Meg Whitman is breaking ground inside corporate America. In a program slated to begin this January, Whitman plans to offer health insurance to eBay's PowerSellers, a group of about 80,000 members who sell a minimum of $1,000 each month on the Web site. If Whitman gets her way, thousands of women who use eBay as their virtual storefront would have access to health insurance for themselves and their employees that might not be affordable otherwise.

Cynics claim that Whitman is simply protecting her assets by offering another perk to heavy eBay users, but the program would provide an incentive to PowerSellers to stay the entrepreneurial course and enable them to maintain the flexibility of home-based work.

In an age when 41.2 million Americans (and counting) lack health insurance, and the decline in coverage is led by a decrease in employment-based programs, portable benefits are perhaps as much a necessity as a reliable computer.