America's Second-Class Workers
The ever-weakening economy is driving millions of Americans into the ranks of the country's highly exploited part-time workers.
Part-timers, generally paid less than full-timers, granted fewer benefits and otherwise treated as second-class workers, have long been a significant part of the workforce. Combined with temporary workers, they've made up almost one-fourth of the workforce in some recent years.
Many of the part-timers are women, most of them working to help support their families. Many have no choice but to take part-time jobs because full-time jobs or facilities where they can leave their children for care throughout the workday are not available.
But whether or not they would prefer full-time jobs, all the workers obviously would prefer to be raised from their second-class status. In many places, for instance, part-timers are paid less than full-time workers doing exactly the same jobs. And fewer than half of the part-timers have employer-paid health insurance or pensions.
Most of the part-timers have very little protection from the arbitrary actions of employers, through unions or otherwise. They have very little job security and little or no chance of being promoted to higher paying jobs.
The widespread employment of part-time workers increases the taxpayers' burdens, too, since the part-timers' lack of benefits often forces them to turn to government-funded programs for health care and other essential services.
A new report in the New York Times calculates that nearly four million Americans have had their full-time jobs cut back to part time in recent months -- the biggest such cut back since at least the 1950s.
That has brought to more than five million the number of Americans who've had their working hours reduced or who have tried but failed to find full-time work. That's more involuntary part-timers than at any time since 1995.
Employers have reduced workers' hours in hopes of riding out the economic storm that's hit the country. But though that has allowed their employees to at least temporarily keep their jobs, it's of course cut their pay -- and cut it in half or by more for many of them.
Paychecks are shrinking, of course, at the same time that home prices are going down, down, down -- and gasoline prices going up, up, up.
Many workers are left with the unhappy choice of agreeing to work fewer hours or going on furlough without pay but hoping to be rehired when - and if - the economy improves. Others have no choice. First their hours are cut, and finally they're laid off --and that's that.
The Times says that many experts are predicting, not only continued growth in the number of underpaid part-time workers, but also more layoffs -- many more layoffs if the economy doesn't soon improve.
The effects on individuals can be harsh. The Times tells of a man who says he can no longer attend church "because I can't afford to drive, " one who says he "can't afford to drive my truck around and look for a job." There's also a man who tried searching for jobs online "until he fell behind on the bills, and the local telephone company cut off Internet service."
Sadly, there are many more stories like those, and there are going to be more.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.