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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Robert Samuelson Gets Part-Time Work Seriously Wrong

Robert Samuelson Gets Part-Time Work Seriously Wrong

Thursday, 17 July 2014 04:53

For decades people have relied on Robert Samuelson to give a confused rendering of economic reality in the pages of the Washington Post. He came through again today in his warnings about an explosion of part-time work.

The centerpiece of Samuelson's concern is a reported, "whopping — 1,115,000 — increase in part-time jobs offset by the 708,000 loss in full-time jobs." Yes, that sounds pretty worrying. The number of full-time jobs is plunging. 

The reason that you are hearing this concern raised by Robert Samuelson and not by any of the economists or analysts who commented on the June jobs report is that the latter group understands the volatility of the data in the household survey from which the numbers on part-time work is obtained. It is not uncommon to see sharp month-to-month movements in part-time or full-time work. This is why economists generally ignore the month to month changes in these numbers in the household survey and rely instead on longer period changes, like year over year comparisons.

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. No one can believe that we really saw a sharp drop in part-time in April and May, only to be reversed by a huge surge in June. These numbers are simply errors in the survey. This is why no one raised the monthly movements.

There is an interesting story if we look at the year over year numbers. These numbers do show an increase in the number of part-time work, but all on the voluntary side. Voluntary part-time employment increased by 840,000 from June of 2013 to June of 2014. At the same time involuntary part-time employment fell by 650,000, leaving a net gain of 190,000. Since this was accompanied by a year over year change in total employment of 2,146,000 jobs, it implies a gain in full-time employment of 1,956,000 jobs. Are you scared?

There is actually a story (a good one in my view) of increased part-time work. Many people would prefer to work part-time. They have young children or ill family members they would like to spend time with. Or, they may be older workers who would like to partially retire. Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act these people might have worked full-time because this was the only way they could get health care insurance. However now that they can get insurance on the exchanges, they have the option to work part-time. I don't see the problem with this.

Samuelson does raise the issue that employers are cutting workers hours to less than 30 to avoid the employer sanctions that apply to firms who have more than 50 full-time employees but don't provide health care insurance. The imposition of these sanctions has been delayed, but Helene Jorgensen and I looked at the evidence that such hours reductions were happening in the first half of 2013 when employers thought the sanctions would apply to them. (The Obama administration announced the delay of the sanctions in early July of 2013.) There was none.   

Comments (8)Add Comment
Scrooge Employers Maxed Out Long Ago
written by Robert Salzberg, July 17, 2014 6:17
While there is certainly sparse anecdotal evidence of rabid anti-Obamacare employers who specifically cut their employees hours to avoid hitting the 30 hour trigger for coverage under the ACA, employers from Walmart to McDonalds have for quite some time limited large numbers of their employees hours under the minimums to qualify for benefits.

On the flip side, there must be Americans of good will who purposefully increased some employees hours specifically to make them eligible for ACA coverage.
As a Matter of Fact, Economics is Rocket Science
written by Last Mover, July 17, 2014 7:23

Too bad Robert Samuelson doesn't comment on rocket science instead of economics. Plenty of data there to force into whatever rambling incoherent narrative he wants to spin up in that particular column as success or failure.

But no, he has to pick on economics, the hardest of the soft sciences for which straightforward refutation laboratory experiment style is impossible.

Forget about unreliable short term random deviations in the data. Just frame a policy backed by a "theory" pulled out of thin air, then find a window of data consistent with it. Any old window of white noise will do as long as it's narrow enough.

Then he can say, "See, this is not rocket science" as he parades the drivel around as obvious - all the while treating it exactly like rocket science, all conveniently flowered up with "facts" selected to fit the occasion.
written by JSeydl, July 17, 2014 8:54
The ACA did help in the way Dean suggests. But it didn't do much to help those of us paid on an annual-salary basis (as opposed to a per-hour basis). For example, I would like to shift to the 80-80 plan: 80% of the work (new workweek = Mon-Thurs) for 80% of the pay. However, I am paid on an annual-salary basis. To the best of my knowledge, if I were to switch to the 80-80 plan, I would not be eligible to get insurance through the ACA exchanges; I am forced to take the insurance provided by my employer. This acts as a large disincentive for my employer to allow me to shift to the 80-80 plan: my employer is not going to pay me 80% of my current salary yet continue to cover 100% of my health insurance.

In short, the ACA didn't entirely decouple health insurance from work. It did nothing for those of us working in the corporate sector working on annual-salary contracts.
You can still buy an exchange plan if your employer offers insurance
written by Dennis, July 17, 2014 9:56
@JSeydl, but you might not qualify for premium subsidies that your income would otherwise qualify you for--it depends on the quality of insurance offered by your employer.
written by PeonInChief, July 17, 2014 10:27
@JSeydl, If your human resources department is at all competent, you should be able to keep your employer-based insurance with a co-premium equal to 20% of the cost of the insurance. Sometimes the insurer doesn't allow coverage of part-time workers, but if they do, it's an easy payroll deduction.
written by Ryan, July 17, 2014 10:42
That's probably the best opening sentence I've seen here, and you do it frequently. Coffee, out my nose!

written by bananaguard, July 17, 2014 11:55
It's not true that "no one raised the monthly movements." I think Dean must mean no one that he talks to mentioned the monthly movements. Among bond market participants, a good bit of notice was taken of the big drop in full-time work. And it was a relatively big drop, the biggest in 8 months.

Dean's point is probably fundamentally right. It's a shame he feels the need to indulge in less-than-truthful story-telling in order to make his point.

One way in which the wobbles in full-time and part-time work do matter is as a check on the accuracy of household data on a monthly basis. The jobless rate is drawn from household data. If data collection in June was worse than normal, then the amount of trust we put in household data for June should be adjusted accordingly.
Same o' same o'
written by John Quick, July 17, 2014 9:55
Robert Samuelson Gets (something or other)Seriously Wrong

And the sun rose in the east.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.