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Hardships of the Part-Time Economy

Ilana Novick

According to numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the beginning of April, American employers added only 88,000 jobs in March, compared to 268,000 in February. While it's certainly better than losing the same number of jobs, it does very little to reassure Americans still looking for work. Also, while we've had about 30 months of job growth, it doesn't appear to have improved overall incomes. Sentier Research, a firm started by former Census Bureau officials, found that median household incomes are down 7.3% since the start of the recession. 

How is it possible to have growth in jobs with a concurrent decline in median incomes? The answer may lie in the fact that much of the job growth has been, as I covered earlier, in the retail and food service sectors, with jobs that are not only low paying, but offer mainly part-time hours. 

A recent New York Times article shines some light on what many of us didn't need an article to point out: there are 7.6 million Americans who want full-time work, but are stuck in part-time positions -- three million more than when the recession started. If these workers were included in the official unemployment tally, along with those who have given up looking for work, the U.S. unemployment rate (the so-called U-6 rate) would be 13.9 percent.

Of course, part-time work is fine if it's conscious choice. As Sarah Bloom Raskin, a Federal Reserve member noted in a recent speech however, "Many workers who hold contingent positions do so involuntarily. Department of Labor statistics tell us that 8 million Americans say they are working part-time jobs but would like full-time jobs." Amie Crawford was an interior decorator for 30 years before losing her job. She's now a cashier at a juice bar, grateful for some work, but fighting with equally cash-strapped co-workers for increasingly limited hours. 

In addition to the indignity of accepting low wages, part-time workers are subject to labor conditions that many of their full-time counterparts don't have to deal with. Part-time workers are less likely to have health benefits, a set schedule, or paid time off.

As for the long-term unemployed, despite all of the reports and media attention, as Paul Krugman points out in a recent column, they're still considered damaged goods when applying for jobs. In one survey Krugman cited, researchers sent out 4,800 fictional resumes for various jobs, finding that those who were unemployed for sixth months or more were less likely to get callbacks, even when their qualifications were better than those that had been out of work for less time.

Given this discrimination, it's no wonder that so many workers resign themselves to part-time work. Not only do they have to worry about paying their bills, but about avoiding the dreaded resume gap.