An explosion of part-time jobs is finally getting some of the attention it so desperately deserves.
Part-time work as an element of economic vigor has been so strenuously ignored that there is a dearth of useful data.
It consists mainly of official estimates, a smattering of statistics of highly questionable reliability, and word of mouth.
“In 1993, it was estimated (italics mine) that 19.3 percent of employed workers nationwide held down jobs at which they toiled part time,” reports the State Employment Security Department in its quarterly review.
“The situation was more pronounced in Washington,” writes senior economic analyst Robert William Baker, “where 21.9 percent of all employed workers were on part-time schedules.”
In Spokane and North Idaho, I would venture, at least one in four workers is part time.
Why would we have more part-time work than other places?
One - Jobs historically have been harder to come by here than the Puget Sound basin. So, at the top, any overall statewide view of employment patterns is skewed.
Two - So much of Spokane and North Idaho’s recent growth has been in the service and retail sectors, both of which count on a high percentage of part-time workers.
Three - Wages here don’t compare with the coast. Historically there has not been the demand-pull on the labor pool that prevailed in the Puget Sound. As a result, not only are wages much lower, but benefits are leaner.
Four - Living costs here have not, until recently, been as high as most places. So workers could get by on lower wages, skimpier benefits, fewer hours.
Five - Employers can pay less because people don’t pick the Inland Northwest for high pay. Obviously. The big attraction is an area celebrated in Inland Northwest lore as a place to raise kids, live cheap, enjoy nature.
There’s more, but you get the picture.
However, not everyone agrees part-time work is a problem.
“There are those who characterize parttime work as a symptom of economic decline - an indicator of the poor quality of new jobs and skill of new workers,” writes Baker.
“On the other hand, there are those who maintain that part-time jobs are simply stepping stones into the full-time work force, and are not particularly worrisome. And that most workers on part-time schedules prefer it that way.”
The federal government figures 72 percent nationwide worked part time voluntarily in 1993, according to Baker. He estimates that figure is 75 percent in Washington.
But these percentages don’t square with what I hear from people hereabouts who work part time. Not even close.
A partial explanation may be that when employers offering part-time work ask job seekers if they want part-time work, the answer had better be “Yes.” Say “No” and they show you the door.
A clue to this hidden problem exists in statistics documenting escalating growth of part-time jobs without commensurate growth in job holders. The explanation: Government tracks the number of hours an individual works per week, not the number of jobs worked.
“So a worker may hold down two part-time jobs and still be considered a full-time worker, if employed more than 35 hours per week,” notes Baker. “Multiple job holding has increased by leaps and bounds over the past decade.”
An there can be only one reason - necessity.
With two or three part-time jobs, a person can almost make a living. Except that parttime work typically doesn’t include benefits.
“It is now estimated that benefits add over 40 percent to the total cost of labor above and beyond base pay,” observes Baker.
And this raises the issue of benefits dodging.
“Are workers placed on part-time schedules to avoid paying them benefits?” asks Baker. “There certainly is plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence to support this,” he concludes in something of an understandment.
While benefits typically add 40 percent to the cost of labor for an employer, for an employee the value of a benefit package can easily exceed 40 percent. Because they are net - before taxes.
In Spokane, business and government leaders now recognize that poor-quality jobs - low pay, part-time work, few benefits - adversely impact the entire community.
In recent years, Momentum and the Economic Development Council have taken steps to address the problem.
They have made better-quality jobs and benefits a primary thrust of economic development efforts.