Common Dreams reports that much of the good news about job growth hides more troubling economic news. The article cites research by the National Economic Law Project that shows most workers have lost ground on wages. It also quotes economist Robert Kuttner, who notes that more new hires face part-time work schedules, including on-call jobs that give no set hours. We want more jobs. But they need to be good jobs, not work schedules that let employers make more money by making workers more insecure. America needs a raise and better working conditions.
I read an interesting article today about local companies that offer “summer schedules.” These enlightened employers let employees to work longer days between Monday and Thursday in order to take off all or part of Friday, which lets the employee have a longer weekend during the summer. That truly is a benefit. However, not many companies offer it, especially if the type of work being done is blue collar or low wage.
There’s a different kind of flexible work that is becoming popular: contingent labor. Employers want the ability to increase or decrease staffing quickly without taking on the burden of full time employees. Employment services or outsourced work firms hire staff on a contingent, and then “fill orders” with the employer who needs flexibility. From the employer’s point of view, this system works great. The employee has a different perspective.
Under a contingent system, there is no guaranteed number of hours (and usually no benefits). There is also no set schedule. When there is work, the employee has to work if she wants to get paid. Some employers market these jobs as having a flexible schedule. The problem with this claim is that it is one way. Contingent work models make no commitment to the employee. In fact, they are modeled in a way to make each employee immediately replaceable, a cog in the machine.
I once managed a contingent workforce. In hiring new staff, I underscored what the job entailed and what it could not promise. For people with full time jobs or other sources of income, a contingent work model real can offer flexibility and a little extra cash. The problem is that more and more jobs that were full time are now becoming contingent. Jobs in manufacturing, assembly, distribution were once good jobs that gave employees a secure 40 hours a week and insurance. Many companies are now using a lean full time staff and supplementing with outsourced, contingent labor.
Again, if we are solely looking at this trend from the employer’s perspective, it’s a winner. Labor costs are reduced and all of the hassle of HR administration is borne by the temporary service or outsourced firm. The employee now has to bear the burden of finding enough hours to pay bills along with the insecurity of having no medical insurance. Where summer work schedules discussed above are an example of an employer being flexible, the employee must be flexible in the contingent model, ready to scramble when the phone rings.
As Michael Harrington wrote in The Other American, the working poor in the U.S. are often invisible. We take their labor for granted and train our consciences not to care about what they are paid. The problem is that the number of people in bad jobs – low wage or contingent – is growing. With no sense of security and little income, they buy only what is needed, which explain why “dollar stores” are booming. The entire economy will suffer as this trend continues. As a country, we need to wake up.
Writing in Daily Kos¸ Meteor Blades reports that our focus on more jobs may be missing a bigger problem. The economy has added jobs. The problem is that more and more of them tend to be part-time or paid at lower wages. Blades cites a this eye-popping statistic: In 2008 4.7 million Americans were employed part-time. That number is now, just five years later, 7.8 million. Even more shocking, the retail industry has cut one million jobs since 2006 and only added 500,000 part-time jobs.
Recent economic news has sounded good: more people working, improved housing market, and more factory orders. None of this happy talk will matter if employees keep getting squeezed on income. My clients tend to be professionals with college degrees. Over the last year too many to count have told stories of going 3-5 years with no increase in pay. If this continues, the chickens will come to roost.