Editorial: Economic recovery hasn’t reached involuntary part-time workers
As President Obama works to refocus attention in Washington and across the country on the economy, new research from the University of New Hampshire suggests the job may be more complicated than it appears.
The president and others have expressed relief in the slowly shrinking unemployment rate, which has made steady progress across the country since the depths of the Great Recession. But a report from the Carsey Institute at UNH indicates that politicians should be concerned not just about those Americans who are out of work but also about those working part time involuntarily – in other words, people who would prefer full-time work but are unable to find it. As the economy has rebounded, the percentage of involuntary part-time workers – those working fewer than 35 hours each week – has remained stubbornly high, creating significant hardships for them and their families. The Carsey report notes:
∎ The single largest five-year increase in involuntary part-time employment since the 1970s occurred between 2007 and 2012.
∎ The involuntary part-time employment rate more than doubled between 2007 and 2012. For women, it rose from 3.6 percent to 7.8 percent. For men, the rate increased from 2.4 percent in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2012.
∎ While the unemployment rate has slowly fallen since 2010, the rate of workers in involuntary part-time positions has remained relatively constant.
∎ Involuntary part-time employment is a key factor in poverty. In 2012, one in four involuntary part-timers lived in poverty, whereas just one in 20 full-time workers lived in poverty.
You might think the factors that lift the general economy out of recession would create full-time opportunities for such workers but, so far, that’s not happening. In Washington and at the state level, it’s worth some hard thinking about why – and what might be done about it.
The Carsey report makes at least one concrete suggestion: “Policies that increase the quality of part-time positions, such as unemployment insurance for part-time workers, may go far in alleviating the economic penalties associated with involuntary part-time employment,” said researcher Rebecca Glauber.
Hours aside, part-time jobs today are typically much less attractive than full-time positions. The hourly pay is lower, they come with fewer benefits and they offer less job security. If part-time work is, in fact, the new normal for a not-insignificant part of the population, it may well make sense for laws to be modernized to fit that reality. But forcing new mandates on employers is no doubt politically fraught.
There is a worry, of course, that the number of involuntary part-timers could grow, rather than shrink, in future years. That’s because the Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide health insurance to full-timers; reducing employees’ hours below the 30-hour threshold could potentially save companies money.
Glauber’s report stresses that such fears did not materialize in Massachusetts, where a similar health-care mandate has been in place for years. Between 2006 and 2010, full-time employment declined by 2.8 percentage points in Massachusetts and by 2.7 percentage points in states with comparable employment levels. And full-time employment declined by a significantly larger percentage (3.6 percentage points) in the rest of the country.
Still, there is already some evidence in New Hampshire that such hours-cutting is taking place. The state community colleges, for instance, informed their adjunct professors this year that the number of hours they could work would be capped. An official at NHTI attributed the change directly to the new health-care law.
For many people, part-time work is a blessing: It gives them flexibility and allows them to balance education or child-care or elder-care responsibilities with earning a living. But for those part-timers who would prefer full-time work, the economic recovery is still a work in progress.