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Saying goodbye to the 40-hour week

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 7:47 p.m.

If 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 United States 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 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. More than four 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 employed only 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 a bit, 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.

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. Although higher wages are the centerpiece of their campaign, many workers walking the picket lines complain 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 — and it's not unusual, Cunningham said, to be sent home early, or even to show up and be told she's not needed.

“Sometimes they call. Sometimes they wait until I get there and they say, ‘We've got enough people,' ” said Cunningham, a mother of two. “It'd be nice to have the same schedule all the time.”

Cunningham said she likes her job and the people she meets, but when the mother of two heard about the fast-food strikes rippling across St. Louis this summer, she joined in. Better pay. More hours. Benefits. She needs something more from her work.

“When I get paid, every cent goes to rent and food,” she said. “There's never anything left over.”

Others, though, are part time by choice. They like the money, but like 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-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.”

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 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 the health care act 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.

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