Part-Time America

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Of the 963,000 jobs created in the past six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Household Surveys, 936,000 of them are part-time. That doesn’t mean that just 27,000 of the people hired on to new jobs got full-time work. The total for part-time jobs includes both newly created jobs and formerly full-time gigs that were cut-back to part-time, and the BLS doesn’t pose the questions that would enable it to quantify these two kinds of new part-time jobs. But factoring in both kinds, we do know that the net number of full-time jobs in America has risen by just 27,000 since the end of January.

One reason that the number of full-time jobs is so abysmally low is Obamacare’s employee mandate, which stipulated that employers with 50 or more workers either had to provide all such workers who put in at least 30 hours a week with health insurance, or pay a penalty that would help defray the government’s costs for providing subsidized benefits. The administration announced this summer that it would delay the implementation of the employer mandate—which was slated to kick in on January 1, 2014—for a year. But for the first half of 2013, employers had reason to believe it would go into effect next New Year’s Day

But the employer mandate is just one of a myriad of reasons why the share of part-time workers is rising. Of the 162,000 jobs created in July, the BLS reports that 38,000 were in restaurants and bars, where the average workweek has been roughly 25 hours for years. Another 47,000 were in retail trade, where the average workweek is just over 30 hours. Employment in manufacturing, the BLS wrote, “was essentially unchanged in July and has changed little, on net, over the past 12 months.” The average workweek in manufacturing is still slightly over 40 hours.

But the share of jobs in manufacturing has been shrinking for more than half-a-century while the share of jobs in services (a catch-all category that includes retail and restaurants) has been rising. As a consequence, Americans’ workweek has been diminishing for half-a-century as well: From 38.7 hours in 1966 to 34.4 last month. Obamacare or no, the workweek of the American employee is in long-term, secular decline.

Americans have known short workweeks before. At the bottom of the Great Depression, in 1932, part-time jobs probably outnumbered their full-time counterparts, though no one was endeavoring to come up with a hard count. The difference between then and now is that 1932 was the very bottom of the Depression, while 2013 is the fourth year of our so-called recovery. The recovery, however, has been distinguished by lackluster domestic business investment, falling household incomes, stagnating wages, and shorter workweeks. The only thing that enables us to characterize the past four years as a recovery is that the Gross Domestic Product has been growing, though UC Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez has demonstrated that that growth has gone entirely to the very wealthy: The income of the wealthiest 1 percent has risen by 11.2 percent while that of the bottom 99 percent has declined by 0.4 percent. Some of that decline for the beleaguered 99 is doubtless due to new prevalence of part-time work.

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

Read Talking Union posts by Harold Meyerson.


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