AS temporary agencies flourish and health-care reformers point to the millions of uninsured part-time workers, the fast-growing segment of contingent workers in the United States is taking on Gulliver proportions in the minds of policymakers.
Analysts talk of a permanent structural change under way in the economy as the ballooning number of part-timers brings new liquidity to the work force.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, speaks of rethinking ``many of our traditional assumptions about work, training, pensions....''
Companies talk of adopting ``just in time'' resource management to hone their competitiveness. And new businesses are being created to handle the growing number of contingent workers.
But a new report on part-time workers suggests that the excitement may be exaggerated. According to the latest brief published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington, the number of part-time workers has indeed increased sizably over the past 24 years. However, the change as a proportion of the total work force ``has been minimal.''
Titled ``Characteristics of the Part-time Work Force,'' the report finds that between 1969 and 1993, the part-time work force grew from 15.5 percent to 18.8 percent of the total work force, or 3.3 percentage points.
The modest size of the change even caught the co-authors off guard. ``When we first started writing the report, we expected to be saying: `There's this huge increase in part-time employment,' '' says Sarah Snider, a research analyst at EBRI. ``What the story became was: `Well, it's not as big as we thought.' ''
Much of that 3.3 percent increase occurred among what the report calls ``involuntary'' part-timers - those who would prefer to be in a full-time job, but can only find part-time work. This involuntary crowd constitutes about one-third (29.4 percent) of the part-time work force and has grown almost three times as fast as voluntary part-timers - from 1.8 million in 1969 to 6.1 million in 1993, at an average annual increase of 5.2 percent. Voluntary part-timers, on the other hand, grew from 9 million to 14.6 million over the same period, at an average annual rate of 2 percent (See chart).
Where the proportion of voluntary part-timers has remained relatively flat, the proportion of involuntary part-timers has tended to fluctuate with the economy. Big dips in the gross domestic product have been mirrored by big rises in the number of involuntary part-timers. In 1983, for example, this group reached a high of 6 million following the recession of the early '80s.
The slight, though steady increase in involuntary part-timers is of some concern, Ms. Snider says, because these workers are 2-1/2 times less likely to have health coverage than their voluntary counterparts.
As the health-care debate consumes Capitol Hill, these new figures give ammunition to those who advocate mandating coverage for part-time workers. But the numbers are less than conclusive and only represent a piece of the story. The broader discussion revolves around the access to health care of contingent workers, who comprise the self-employed, independent contractors, part-timers, temporary and leased employees, and those who work from home or share jobs. Here, accurate numbers are hard to come by, Snider says.
Estimates of the size of the contingent work force abound, she says, but they are often pulled from different surveys with different methodologies. ``You're double counting; definitions aren't consistent, so you're not getting a real good number,'' she says.
For instance, an independent contractor, who may also be a part-time, self-employed worker, ``could conceivably be counted three times as a member of the contingent work force,'' the report says. ``That kind of overlapping makes the issue of policy change to protect contingent workers a much more contentious issue,'' Snider says.
Like contingent workers in general, part-timers are payed lower wages and receive fewer benefits than full-time workers. Twenty-one percent of part-time workers have no health insurance, while 16 percent of full-time workers go without coverage, the report says.