The part-time epidemic

One Cent's Worth
By MARC MEWSHAW  |  July 10, 2013

As part of the PR push behind the iffy contention that we're seeing a robust recovery, pundits point to encouraging jobs data. But the employment picture is a lot bleaker when you consider how much job growth has come in the form of part-time work in sectors like retail and fast food. Lately, the "part-timing" trend's seen reinforcement from an unlikely source: Obamacare. Good thing Republican US Senator Susan Collins has the workingman's back. Or does she?

Part-time work has always existed, but the fastest growing share of it nowadays is involuntary — or, in the dreary idiom of officialdom, it's undertaken for "economic reasons."

Here's another cringe-making euphemism: "efficiency innovation." That's what businesses call their strategic juggling of part-time workers. Thanks to sophisticated scheduling software that assigns shifts based on customer flows, part-timers have become the ultimate commoditized human resource, subbed in and out as needed. A 2011 CUNY study found that only 10 percent of part-timers have a set schedule from week to week, making it difficult to hold down a second job. Interchangeable and disposable, they're six times as likely as full-timers to earn minimum wage, and receive scant training and education. Consequently, they build few marketable skills with which to free themselves from the dead-end of part-time work.

On top of the human toll, there's the macroeconomic one: saddled with job insecurity, living hand to mouth, scrimping for unexpected medical expenses they must pay out of pocket, part-timers make lousy consumers.

The shift toward part-time workers spiked after the financial crisis — and Obamacare's looming start date has only ramped it up. That's because Obamacare will require companies with 50 or more full-time employees, defined as those who work at least 30 hours a week, to offer health coverage or face fines. Although that "employer mandate" was recently delayed until 2015, small businesses along with franchise giants like Five Guys and Papa John's have already taken steps to circumvent it — freezing hiring and cutting back existing employees' hours to limit the number of workers considered full-time.

Cue Collins, who, along with her Indiana Democratic colleague Joe Donnelly, has co-sponsored a bill to address what she calls the "perverse incentive" Obamacare creates for employers to scale back shifts. Her bill would change the definition of full-time from 30 to 40 hours — at first blush, a sensible piece of legislative realpolitik aimed at protecting workers and businesses alike.

The rub? A recent Labor Department survey put the length of the average workweek at 34.4 hours. Under Collins's plan, then, a huge swath of the labor force wouldn't qualify as full-time. That goes a long way toward defeating the purpose of the 30-hour provision in Obamacare: compelling employers to do their part in providing healthcare for the millions of uninsured Americans. When it comes to small business, there's a case to be made that such a requirement is burdensome. Corporate franchises? Not so much. Yet Collins's bill would let both off the hook. So, what looks like a pro-labor bill may turn out to be a poison chalice: a pro-business measure wrapped in the white flag of realist policymaking.

There's another angle to consider. By free-marketeers' lights, a part-time economy is the natural and inevitable endpoint of laissez-faire capitalism.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Susan Collins, obamacare
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