Working Part Time Is Not A Disaster for Recovery

Washington — By many indicators, the recent job market is clearly improving. It still has a long way to go, but the pace of employment growth is up and unemployment has fallen sharply in recent months. Importantly, the recent decline in the jobless rate has been for the right reason: people getting jobs as opposed to people leaving the labor market.

Still, those in the business of disparaging the “Obama recovery” latched onto the spike in part-time work in the last jobs report as an indicator that the silver lining has a dark cloud around it. Based on the rise in part-time jobs in June, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece complained about the “distinctive odor of hype” around the widely-greeted-as-strong jobs report. The author went on to blame Obamacare for the increase in part-time jobs. Writing in The Washington Post, Robert Samuelson, while acknowledging that such data are noisy, worried that the improving labor market is really just undergoing a “part-time boom.”

Two things to keep in mind when you hear such talk. First, there are two very different flavors of part-time work, voluntary and involuntary, with the latter referring to part-timers who’d rather have full-time jobs. There’s nothing wrong, and a lot right, with voluntary part-time work. There’s not even anything wrong with affordable health care coverage allowing involuntary full-time workers to work less and still maintain coverage. That’s unequivocally good!

On the other hand, there’s a lot wrong with not being able to work as many hours as you’d like due to the lack of gainful opportunities. So the focus on what’s truly problematic in this space should be on involuntary part-time work. Involuntary PT rose sharply in the downturn to historically high levels — at its peak in March of 2010, there were 9.2 million IPTers. As the job market has improved, that number is down 1.7 million to a still elevated 7.5 million workers.

The second thing to remember is never to make a big deal over monthly changes in the household survey data from which these part-time statistics are drawn. As Dean Baker points out on the Center for Economic and Policy Research site, “If Robert Samuelson had written this piece last month, before the release of the June data, he could have been decrying the disappearance of part-time work, since the economy had lost 318,000 part-time jobs in the prior two months.” According to White House economists, “In the recovery itself 88 percent of the jobs added have been full time, and that number is 99 percent in the last year.”

So, if we want to get the actual skinny on what’s going on here we need to a) switch to quarterly data to average out some of the monthly bips and bops, and b) compare, over the course of the recovery, the path of involuntary part time and voluntary part time.

The figure indexes both series to 100 starting in the last quarter of the recession, second quarter of 2009. Thus, the lines tell you the cumulative percent change in both series.

Over the five years of the recovery thus far, voluntary part time is essentially unchanged while involuntary part time is down almost 20 percent. That’s certainly the pattern you’d expect in recoveries, as the involuntary part timers try to increase their hours compared to the volunteers who want to work part-time.

We had a wicked bad downturn wherein millions couldn’t find the hours of work they sought. The recovery is slowly — too slowly — helping to repair some of that damage. Though we may ultimately see some impact of the employer health care mandate on part-time work, that mandate isn’t even in place yet, and the data are not showing anything to that effect at this point.

If those facts don’t fit your ideology, I’m sorry, but while you’ve certainly got a right to your own opinion, you don’t have a right to your own facts.

Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? among other books.