Second-class workers

NEARLY one-fourth of those who work for a living these days do so only on a part-time or temporary basis. But though they are among the most exploited of Americans, and though their numbers are growing rapidly, their plight is virtually ignored. Two-thirds of the workers are women. Most must work to help support their families. Many have no choice but to take part-time or temporary jobs; often full-time jobs or facilities where they can leave their children for care through the full workday are not available.

But whether or not they would prefer full-time jobs, all the workers would obviously prefer to be raised from their second-class status. And I mean second class.

The average part-time worker earns $4.50 an hour while the average full-timer earns $7.80. In many cases the part-timers do the same work as full-timers.

The group 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, recently reported, for instance, that part-time clerical workers at a community college in Cleveland were being paid $4 to $5 an hour for work that paid full-time employees $7 to $8 an hour.

About 30 percent of all part-time workers are paid at the federal minimum of $3.35 an hour.

Wages for temporary and part-time workers alike, 9 to 5 noted, are often not related to the skills required on the job or the skills of the particular workers. They are related instead to whether the workers are part time, temporary, or full time.

Only 16 percent of all part-time or temporary workers have employer-paid health care insurance. Only 27 percent have pension coverage. Relatively few have other fringe benefits available to full-time workers.

Avoiding the cost of benefits is a major reason employers like to hire part-time or temporary workers. The employers include the Reagan administration, which adopted regulations in 1985 widely expanding the authority of federal agencies to hire and retain temporary employees. Administration officials said they did that primarily because temporary employees, who can now be kept on ``temporary'' status for at least four years, are not eligible for health care benefits.

The fact that temporary employees can be dismissed almost at will also appealed to the Reagan administration, as it does to many private employers. Part-time workers have a little more security - but not much - and, like temporary workers, have slight chance of promotion to better-paying jobs.

Relatively few of the workers have the protection of unions. Part-timers are often excluded from union bargaining units, and temporary workers, who constantly change jobs, are very difficult to organize. Employers, in fact, sometimes step up their hiring of such workers to thwart union organizing drives or to undercut the bargaining power of unions already representing their full-time workers.

9 to 5 is seeking changes in the labor laws that would make it easier to organize part-time and temporary workers. The organization also wants laws that would require employers to provide the same rate of pay and the same benefits to all those doing the same work, whether they be part time, full time, or temporary.

That's the least that should be done. For though the widespread use of part-time and temporary workers has enabled employers to save millions of dollars, says 9 to 5 executive director Karen Nussbaum, it has left millions of workers ``to cope with lower pay, and a frightening lack of benefits, pensions, job security, and chances for advancement.''

Dick Meister, a San Francisco author, has covered labor for the past 30 years as a newspaper and broadcast reporter and editor.

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