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LABOR / HARRY BERNSTEIN

Troubling Facts on Employment

September 15, 1992|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin is having a terrible time finding even a few scraps of encouraging news about the job market that might help President Bush keep his own job--and most of the scraps she announces are misleading.

For instance, she said that an increase of about 200,000 jobs in July was the basis for "guarded optimism in the economic outlook."

But most of that small increase was because of a steady rise in the number of workers who are involuntarily taking part-time jobs instead of the full-time ones they want.

Many people do prefer part-time jobs, but most of the gain in the labor force is coming from the involuntary part-timers, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the last 20 years, the overall work force grew by 54%, and the number of voluntary part-timers jumped 69%.

Yet the number of involuntary part-timers soared by a huge 121%.

Also undermining Martin's optimism was the fact that nearly a fourth of them were summer jobs for youths, created and paid for by the federal government.

Remember, Bush generally opposes the idea of the government specifically paying to create jobs even though it does make sense to have the government become the "employer of last resort" when the private sector fails to reduce unemployment.

That concept will become increasingly important if the modest job training programs advocated by Bush are adopted. It will be even more crucial for the government to create jobs if the extensive training programs advocated by Gov. Bill Clinton are adopted.

What is the point of training or retraining workers for nonexistent jobs?

Martin had to look for another hint of encouraging news after the July job report was overtaken by the August one. That one showed the number of jobs had dropped by 83,000.

So she switched to another argument. The secretary was "encouraged" because there was a slight decline in the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits.

She didn't mention that one reason for the decline was the rise in the number of what the labor department calls "discouraged workers"--the 1.1 million people who have finally just quit looking for jobs because there aren't any for them.

Bush and the labor secretary might use an entirely different way of looking at all of these depressing job figures to see something good in the sad job picture.

This twist is offered by the recently created business-funded Employment Policies Institute, which has come up with some misleading studies of its own.

Even the name of this new institute is misleading. It calls itself EPI, the same name used for years by the older and much more progressive Economic Policy Institute.

The conservative EPI, financed mostly by low-wage companies such as hotels and restaurants, is issuing reports the titles of which alone could help Bush and Martin put a bright face on the miserable job scene.

The latest one is "The Value of Part-Time Workers to the American Economy." It hails as a great thing the distressing growth of part-time jobs because they offer "flexibility" in economic planning for both workers and companies, and say that flexibility is vital "in the growing and increasingly competitive global economy."

Tell that nonsense to the more than 6.5 million workers forced to take part-time jobs because nothing else is available. That is an increase of more than 1.5 million involuntary part-timers since 1990, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says.

Bush and Martin would not even object to what the new EPI says is the real purpose of "The Value of Part-Time Workers" report, which is to help employers of part-timers kill an admirable proposal now pending in Congress. The measure would require employers to provide part-timers with wages and benefits comparable to those of full-time workers, on a pro rata basis.

The business-funded study denounces that sensible idea because it claims that unemployment would rise since many employers hire part-timers to escape paying for health insurance and other fringe benefits that are not now mandatory.

Sure, there are advantages to part-time jobs for youngsters in high school, but a new study by the William T. Grant Foundation, which is partially funded by Bush's own Department of Education, shows that students who work more than 15 or 20 hours a week do less well in school and have higher rates of drug and alcohol use and delinquency than their peers who are in school full time.

Despite the Administration's eager search for scraps of encouraging job news, the truth is there isn't any. Unemployment is nearly 8% nationally and almost 10% in California and that doesn't include "discouraged workers" or part-timers, even those who work just an hour a week.

We cannot improve that situation by pushing for more involuntary part-time jobs. Workers are already suffering, not only from the loss of jobs but reduced buying power.

We will lose hundreds of thousands of jobs to Mexico for years to come if Bush's version of the U.S.-Mexican-Canadian free trade agreement is approved by Congress. They may come back in what one old labor song calls "the sweet by and by" if Mexico's economy flourishes with the help of the agreement. But that won't do much for U.S. workers anytime in the near future.

Because of the recession and other factors, well-paying, full-time jobs are disappearing much more rapidly than they are being created, and the growing numbers of illegal aliens are strong competitors for the low-wage, part-time jobs that are available.

Clinton has been calling for policies that he says will change the nation's economic direction, and Bush is starting to say he too is ready for change. Workers will have to wait and see what happens next, but clearly they are being hurt by what is happening now.

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