Punishing Workers Who Must Work Part-Time

As temperatures rise, so do unemployment rates as out-of-work job-seekers enter the stifling summer months wondering how long they will be out of work. According to the Labor Department's monthly employment report, the nation's jobless rate in May rose to 5.5%, the highest level since 2004 and the largest one-month increase in more than two decades.

Often overlooked in these bleak jobs reports, though, are the hundreds of thousands of workers who are still technically employed but barely hanging on. These are the part-timers. And as the economy worsens, more and more workers will have to take part-time jobs, exposing the urgent need to reform these positions.

The need for change goes beyond the lower wages part-timers earn compared to their full-time counterparts. Typically these workers enjoy few or no employer benefits; according to the Economic Policy Institute, only 17% of part-timers receive employer provided health care coverage, for instance, in contrast to 69% of full-timers. And EPI finds that a mere 20% of part-time workers receive an employer provided pension plan, compared to two-thirds of full-time workers. Most part-timers also miss out on vacation, personal and paid sick days.

The lack of basic government protections also poses a huge problem for part-timers. Unemployment compensation, Social Security benefits and family leave are all organized around full-time, full-year jobs. That's why when a part-time worker loses her job, she's 59% less likely than full-time workers to collect any unemployment insurance.

In this shaky economy, more and more people are being forced into these dead-end jobs for several reasons. Employers who want to save company costs are pushing workers into part-time jobs and that trend is expected to continue. And workers and families are taking on part-time jobs to try to make ends meet. In February 2008, the number of workers who took part-time jobs in the U.S. for economic reasons rose by 100,000, bringing the total to 4.79 million workers. This is the highest number since 1993, according to the Labor Department. Then there are those who are taking multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills. In 2007, an average of 1.8 million people held two jobs for that reason, the most since the government began regularly tracking the statistic in 1994.

What these new part-time workers will now face is what millions of caregivers -- many of whom are women with family responsibilities -- face everyday. Indeed, a full 70% of all women with children now work outside of the home. But because the U.S., alone among industrialized nations, has failed to update workplace standards and supports, many women must rely on part-time jobs.

In most industrialized nations, workers are allowed to cut their hours at their workplace to accommodate care giving without being penalized in wages, benefits or protections. These countries also have provisions for early child care and education. The U.S., by sharp contrast, has no such options, leaving most workers scrambling to provide care for their children. Our outdated system, thus, leaves American caregivers no other option but to take lower quality part-time jobs. And these jobs also often involve non-standard hours, which makes it even more difficult and more expensive to find that rare babysitter willing to work overnight.

Part of the problem is that because part-time jobs are largely held by women, they are treated as less important. And people rationalize the discrimination in wages, benefits and protections by talking about these jobs as if they were peripheral to the U.S. economy. But today's "part-time" jobs are central to our economy and to families. Increasingly, whole industries, including retail and janitorial services, are becoming "part-time." Today, in fact, close to one-fifth of all jobs in the U.S. are part-time.

As more and more workers are left no choice but to take part-time jobs in this worsening economy, their fate will hopefully shine a spotlight on an injustice that is a national scandal--punishing workers who must work part-time. Some states are already eliminating the distinction between part-time and full-time workers in their unemployment compensation laws, and that is an obvious first step. But we need to do more. We need to rethink our system of basic benefits and safety nets to ensure that all workers are covered. It never made sense to arbitrarily punish part-time workers and it makes even less sense today.

Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans (New Press, 2003), is a spokesperson for the Russell Sage Foundation's Future of Work Project.