It's Time to Cover Part-Time Workers

Two cheers for Marriott International! The giant corporation announced recently that its full-time workers whose hours have been reduced to part-time will be allowed to retain health care benefits. Marriott stands out because most of the nine million full-time workers who due to the recession are now part-timers haven't been so lucky. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 25 percent of part-time workers have access to health care benefits, compared to 85 percent of the full-time ones.

This is another grim aspect of the deepening global recession. One of every five people in the U.S labor force was working part-time before it began, and that number is growing every day as more and more workers' hours are slashed and many can't find full-time work through no fault of their own. The share of workers employed only part-time due to slack work or business conditions is higher today than at any time since the late 1950s.

Our system of benefits is also stalled in the 1950s. The 20th century model relied on a single full-time breadwinner, most probably in manufacturing. Then women entered the labor force, and we had a radical shift from manufacturing to the service and retail trades. Employers in service and retail trade have chosen to operate with a larger and larger proportion of part-time workers to lower labor costs and obtain greater staffing flexibility.

But it is the workers who have shouldered the losses. They shouldn't have to go without health care because of the choices their employers made. They are still central to their companies' operations, not to mention their families' financial well-being and the national economy.

Marriott's move to give health care to full-time workers it has relegated to part-time status is commendable. But it's small comfort to those at Marriott who already work 30 hours a week or less, who have been relegated to reliance on the emergency room, and to the millions of other part-timers nationwide who are similarly shut out of doctors' offices.

In the current battle over health care reform, part-time workers are hardly being mentioned. This oversight is archaic. Why should basic health care be denied to anyone? Employers will continue to structure jobs with less than full-time hours, and many workers need such jobs to meet their own caregiving obligations at home. Health care should be a basic American right open to all regardless of their full-time or part-time status.