Forgotten underclass: part-time workers

On Equal Pay Day, let's remember the 27 million part-time workers in America who earn lower pay for the same work done by full-timers – and get denied benefits like sick days. Promoting high-quality, part-time work would restore fairness, raise family incomes, and boost the economy.

Today is Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how many weeks into 2011 women must work simply to match what men made in 2010.

It’s a stunning pay gap, but there’s a growing class of workers whose conditions are even more outrageous: part-timers. The great recession has forced millions of full-time workers to accept the second-class status of lower pay and near-zero benefits. Indeed, involuntary part-time employment has doubled in the past five years to 8.4 million, while the total number of part-timer workers has swollen to 27 million. Yet for all we hear about their plight, they might as well be working on the moon.

Private stimulus

This must change. Promoting high-quality, part-time work is not only a basic fairness issue – it is sound policy for a sluggish economy. Equal pay for equal work would raise family incomes across the board, providing a much-needed private stimulus.

Who are these part-time workers? Two-thirds are women, most of them mothers who are trying to provide for their families or hang onto their careers while also raising children. An increasing number are men who have lost full-time jobs or who are looking for a second job as family incomes become more precarious.

Many are seniors, facing the same economic pressures.

Part-time workers pay a steep price, very simply, because part-time work usually pays less per hour than the same or equivalent work performed by full-timers.

A recent report from the Joint Economic Committee, “The Earnings Penalty for Part-time Work: An Obstacle to Equal Pay,” confirms this fact. For example, in sales and related occupations, part-time workers earn as little as 58 cents for every dollar of earnings a full-time worker receives for the same time on the job.

Part-time workers, routinely excluded from basic labor laws, are also disproportionately denied such benefits as health insurance, pensions, family leave, and sick days.

Our organization in New York, A Better Balance, sees the cost of this inequality up close. Through our free legal clinic, we meet low-income workers, often single mothers, whose low pay and inadequate benefits threaten their ability to meet basic needs such as food, housing, and child care. And when they lose their jobs, many face problems obtaining unemployment insurance, or fail to qualify altogether, pushing these families deeper into poverty. Even part-time workers who are fortunate enough to land gigs at professional firms tell us about pay inequities and lack of opportunities for advancement.

Merits of the Dutch model

It doesn’t have to be this way. For example, in the Netherlands, a major shift to fairly compensated part-time work has proven to be an effective strategy in combating unemployment. While the Dutch system is not perfect, the country’s commitment to well-paid part-time jobs with benefits has made workers there, particularly mothers, far less vulnerable than they are here in the United States. Whether it could have the same effect here might be open to debate, but it is an approach worth trying in the face of historic unemployment.

Promoting high quality part-time work is also good for business. Overwhelming data shows flexible work arrangements help lower turnover, increase productivity, and improve employee loyalty. In these tough economic times, part-time work is also an effective strategy to reduce costs and minimize layoffs.

Some argue the part-time penalty is justified because many part-time workers choose to work part-time. But choices are not made in a vacuum. In a country where millions of workers are denied paid sick days, family leave, and any control over their work hours, part-time work is the only way many working mothers in particular have been able to meet their family obligations. Penalizing them for fulfilling their responsibilities is like punishing people for doing the right thing.

On Equal Pay Day, it’s imperative we call for a halt to the part-time wage and benefit penalty.

Steps that will make a difference

As a first step, Congress should strengthen enforcement of our nation’s anti-discrimination laws to ensure that part-time workers are paid fairly for a day’s work.

Also, passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow workers to share salary information without penalty, would make a significant difference.

Finally, federal and state governments should work to create quality part-time jobs, where part-time workers are not only afforded the same (pro-rata) pay, but also the same conditions, development, and advancement opportunities as comparable full-time workers. Britain has recently defined a quality part-time job to include these elements. The US should follow suit.

The best step, of course, would be aggressive grassroots pressure for change. If the rush of men into part-time jobs continues, maybe we will finally see a protest against the second-class status of so many of those who serve us in our shops and restaurants, care for us in our hospitals and nursing homes, and labor in the bottom rungs of law firms and the other professions.

Shouldn’t Equal Pay Day be their day, too?

Dina Bakst is co-founder & co-president of A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center, a legal advocacy organization. Ann Crittenden is an award-winning journalist, author, and lecturer. Her latest book, is “If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything.”

via The OpEd Project

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