WASHINGTON — PART-time work may once have been the domain of college students and housewives. But no longer. In the past decade, it has become a crucial - and troubling - component of many industrialized economies.
The growth in part-time work has its advantages. Businesses can fashion a more flexible labor force. Workers who want shorter hours can find meaningful jobs. But the part-time trend causes many labor experts to worry that:
* Part-time workers, most of whom are women, have fewer benefits and less job protection than their full-time counterparts.
* They are probably more expendable in a downturn.
* Even during an upturn, like the current one in the United States, the number of involuntary part-timers is too high for a strong recovery. Involuntary workers are those forced to take part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time positions.
Part-time employment is on the rise in most industrialized nations. One out of seven workers in these countries - 60 million people - now works part time, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, which released a study last week on the topic.
``It's a growing phenomenon,'' says Vittorio Di Martino of the ILO. ``Our concern is how to combine the needs for flexibility [of the employer] ... with a minimum level of protection for the workers concerned.''
From 1983 to 1988, part-time jobs grew 27.7 percent in the European Community. Full-time positions there only rose 2.4 percent. Part-time workers now constitute a third of the labor force in the Netherlands, a fourth of the workers in Norway, and a fifth in Britain and New Zealand.
The growth has been less dramatic in the US, but economists worry that the trend here toward involuntary part-time work signals an anemic recovery.
``The character of recent job growth may even be inferior to that of the 1980s, since the wage deterioration appears to be more widespread and the shift to part-time and temporary work is sharper,'' concludes the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute in a report released last week.
For example, the temporary-help industry has created an unusually high 27 percent of all the new jobs since March 1991, the institute says. Moreover, the number of involuntary part-time jobs has not decreased even though a rebound is under way. That is the first time that has happened since at least the 1960s.
Since the report was written, the US Department of Labor has released figures for August that offer little consolation. The number of involuntary part-timers went up by 42,000. That means that these workers now account for 30 percent of all part-timers. And part-time work as a whole represents 18.3 percent of the nation's nonfarm, civilian employment.
These figures may actually understate the problem, argues Philip Braverman, chief economist at DKB Securities Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan's Daichi Kangyo Bank. In making its estimates, the federal government may be counting the number of part-time jobs as opposed to part-time workers (since one worker could have more than one job). Also, he says the estimates of overall job growth overestimate the robustness of the recovery.
``It's not sustainable like any recovery we've ever seen,'' he says. His prescription is the opposite of what the Clinton administration is doing: ``We should cut taxes and raise spending until we're in a sustainable recovery.''
The growth of part-time work during a recovery is not limited to the US. Nearly two-thirds of the 260,000 new jobs created in Canada since last year have been part time, according to Statistics Canada. That contrasts with the last time the country pulled out of recession, when some 40 percent of the new jobs were part-time.
But not all economists are so gloomy about the part-time trend. ``Our society and economy is undergoing a massive restructuring and change after the cold war,'' says Sam Nakagama, a partner of Nakagama & Wallace, an economic advisory firm in New York. ``You've got a much more flexible, open type of society. Those are the only kinds of societies that are doing well.'' The move to part-time work may make workers less vulnerable, he argues, because a flexible economy will have fewer violent swings in employment.
The part-time trend, however, exacerbates the wage gap among workers. On average, an hour of part-time work is not as well-compensated as an hour of full-time work. In the Netherlands, for example, the average part-time worker in 1987 made 16.06 guilders an hour (US$8.69) compared with 19.71 guilders ($10.67) for full-timers, the ILO report says. Canada estimates its part-time workers averaged just under three-quarters of what full-time workers made in 1987. In the US in 1989, part-timers earned 58 percent of full-time wages, writes University of Lowell professor Chris Tilly.
Benefits are another difference between part-timers and full-timers. Part-time workers often have to depend on union contracts to get the same vacation and holiday benefits as their full-time colleagues. The biggest chasm, however, may lie between part-timers who work long hours and those who do not, the ILO concludes. Part-timers who work short hours are often marginal, receiving few benefits.
In one British superstore, more than half of the 415 employees worked less than 16 hours a week. In a British chain of men's clothing stores, the average working week for part-timers was 15 hours. Many British labor laws do not apply to those who work less than 16 hours a week (or eight hours after five years of employment). Thus, part-timers with less than five years' experience often do not have rights that full-time workers do, such as maternity pay, time off for prenatal car, or a written contract.
``This trend toward ... what you might call a transient relationship between the mobile worker and the employer is increasing,'' says Al Bilik, president of the public employee department at the AFL-CIO.
``The biggest concern I have is that in an economy like ours, where we have to depend for competitive purposes on a well-trained, involved work force, the very antithesis is embodied in part-time, seasonal work.''