f this economic recovery feels part-time and temporary, it could be because so many of the jobs it is creating are part-time and temporary. - Part-time employment has surged in recent months, highlighting both the tentative nature of this long, slow economic recovery and the changing dynamics of work.
Through July, according to Labor Department statistics, the number of people working part-time in the U.S. grew four-and-a-half times as fast as the number of full-time workers. And the share of all workers who mainly hold part-time jobs is at levels not seen since the early 1980s.
Several reasons account for this trend, economists say, from technological change to shifting demographics, from economic unease to the onset of the Affordable Care Act. Some Americans are happily part-timing it, for a little extra money in semi-retirement or in school. Others work part-time because the only alternative is no work at all.
In August, the Labor Department says, there were 7.9 million Americans working part-time involuntarily, almost twice as many as were in 2006. Four-plus years since the Great Recession technically ended, those numbers haven't changed much, and people who watch the labor market say they have no idea when they will.
"This is a really peculiar incident," said David Wiczer, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "(The share of part-time workers) always comes up in the aftermath of a recession, but it usually starts to fall again. This time it hasn't fallen."
Indeed, as the economy cratered in late 2008 and early 2009, the share of workers who are only employed part-time, which the government defines as 35 hours a week or less, shot up, hitting 20 percent in January 2010. Since then it has ticked down, but just a bit. In July, that figure was 19.6 percent; this in a period when the economy has added nearly 6 million jobs.
Part-time work has particularly picked up lately. From January through July, the number of working Americans grew by 960,000, according to Labor Department surveys. The number of those who have full-time jobs is up 172,000. The ranks of part-time workers? Up 766,000.
Last month, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reported that Colorado Springs was adding jobs at the fastest rate in years, but wages weren't going up.
The likely reason, economists said: Many of the new jobs are part-time.
Many of the industries with the fastest job growth this year are ones that tend to hire a lot of part-timers. And lately, some of those workers have been pushing for a better deal.
In August, fast-food workers walked off the job as part of nationwide protests. While higher wages are the centerpiece of their campaign, many protesters complained about inconsistent and unpredictable hours, too.
Since January, Lillian Cunningham has been riding the bus an hour each way from her home south of downtown St. Louis to work at a Wendy's in Ballwin, Mo. Her job pays $7.40 an hour. Most weeks, she gets 25 to 30 hours spread over five days -? not enough for benefits.
For some people, working part-time is a choice. They like the money, but also the flexibility that can come with a shorter schedule. Older workers, in particular, are staying in the workforce longer, just not in a 40-hour-a-week role - and their large numbers are helping to add to the part-time rolls, Wiczer said.
"There's this demographic bulge right now that's moving towards more part-time employment," he said. "In 10 years, that's not going to be the case."
By then, perhaps, it will be clearer what role bigger economic shifts are playing in all of this. Many of the jobs that have been slower to grow back since the recession are ones that traditionally offered a 40-hour week at average wages: manufacturing, construction, clerical office work. If technology and globalization mean those sort of jobs never return to the United States, it's not clear what will replace them. This is not a new thing, Wiczer said.
"Really, since the 1970s, a lot of job growth has been either in low-end occupations or high-end occupations," he said. "And lower-end occupations often have more part-time work."
What is new is the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that large employers provide health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours per week. This has some companies - particularly in the restaurant and retail industries - warning that they'll be forced to respond by cutting hours, resulting in more yet more part-time workers.
But economists say that won't make much difference in the long run.
In a recent paper, two researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimated that Obamacare might boost the ranks of part-time workers by 1 or 2 percentage points; federal regulations have long encouraged employers to skirt health care costs through part-time hiring, wrote Rob Valletta and Leila Bengali.
"The ultimate effect (is) likely to be small," they wrote.
The economists suggest a much bigger factor in whether people can find full-time work is the overall strength of the economic recovery. And once that starts to feel more full-time, the jobs it's creating will, too.
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