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Surge in Part-Time Workers Ominous

Clever White House “spin doctors” are having a hard time helping President Bush explain away the economic bashing that low- and middle-income workers are taking these days.

And that daunting task will get more difficult if voters wake up to another disturbing phenomenon: The ominous growth in the number of temporary and part-time workers who are looking in vain for full-time jobs.

These easily discharged “disposable,” or contingent, workers make up nearly a fourth of the entire work force. They often create a burden on the rest of the country because they are generally ineligible for job-based health care, pensions and unemployment benefits and so depend on the rest of us when their income stops.

This trend, exacerbated by the lingering economic slump, ought to become a red-hot campaign issue for the Democrats, who are already lambasting Bush for doing practically nothing to cope with the country’s woes.

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Bush’s handlers may come up with something, but some of his wilder campaign promises don’t make it easy.

Take, for example, his ridiculous 1988 campaign boast that 30 million new jobs could be created if he won the presidency. Bush apparently picked that vote-attracting number out of the air, and he may try to just ignore it.

But it is too tempting a target for his political opponents to ignore, because he missed his goal by an incredible 29.5 million jobs, which AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland says Bush now owes American workers.

No president can legitimately claim all the credit when the good times roll in, and none can be held fully responsible when things are in a mess, as they are now.

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However, many of the current economic problems can be blamed on the Reagan-Bush “trickle down,” supply-side economic policies: Help the rich get richer, and, in theory, they will then invest their money in new enterprises so that their wealth will trickle down to the rest of us. The theory is failing.

Many voters are blaming the Reagan-Bush policies for our misfortunes, and Bush’s dwindling popularity may drop further when workers who have not been personally hit hard by the recession get a more complete picture of some distressing changes going on in the workplace.

Already generally known is that the real income of middle-income workers continues to drop and that of the poor is plummeting, while the income of those at the top of the economic pile soars.

Also, it may be fairly well known that, although the official unemployment rate is hovering close to an unhealthy 7%, the real jobless rate is almost double that. The 7% rate doesn’t include the more than 1 million “discouraged” workers who have given up hope of finding a job and so are not counted among the jobless.

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Of more long-range significance--and less well known--is that the official rate doesn’t include an astonishing 6.4 million workers who have been forced to take part-time work instead of the full-time jobs they want.

There has been an increase of 1.3 million of these “involuntary” part-timers since the current recession began in July, 1990.

“Full-time permanent employment is fast becoming an anachronism in today’s changing economy,” a new study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington contends.

Eileen Appelbaum, EPI economist, says about 15 million workers prefer the part-time jobs they have today--the “voluntary” part-timers. But the disturbing trend is that although the total number of part-time workers is growing rapidly, nearly all of the growth in recent years has been among involuntary part-timers.

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Too many companies today try to compete domestically and internationally the easiest way, by slashing payroll costs. One part of that destructive strategy is to increase their part-time labor force.

Part-timers earn only half as much as full-time workers, because part-timers usually get a lower basic wage and few get fringe benefits that normally run 28% to 38% of total compensation.

There are legitimate uses of part-timers. Some employers hire them to adjust to sharp peaks and valleys of demand, and many workers want more time off to take care of their families or for other personal needs or interests.

But the danger is that more employers are hiring part-timers--voluntary or involuntary ones--to become “lean and mean” in a competitive world, regardless of the harm it does to workers, company efficiency or the economy as a whole.

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The disposable work force also includes temporary workers who are often paid as much full-timers but are far less costly to an employer because they seldom get fringe benefits.

The number of “temps” has nearly tripled since 1982 and totals more than 1.4 million. This is the fastest-growing segment of the entire U.S. labor force, the EPI study notes.

The study recommends such sensible proposals as a requirement that disposable and full-time workers have the same access to fringe benefits and jobless pay. We also need a universal health plan instead of our present employer-based health care insurance. And part-time and temps should get the same basic wage as full timers.

One idea for creating a full-employment society isn’t new, but we should use it: The government must become the employer of last resort, creating jobs when the private sector cannot or will not provide work to all who want it.

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Our taxes--especially on the rich--are the lowest of any major industrial country. A fair tax structure, along with drastic cuts in military expenses, would enable us to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, improve our neglected schools and give workers jobs at the wages they need to buy the goods and services they produce.

It is called the “trickle-up” theory, and it makes a lot more sense than the Reagan-Bush trickle-down policy.


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