workweek. The monthly Labor Department jobs survey for April pegged the length
of the average workweek at 34.4 hours. That's actually improved from an average
low of 33.8 hours in 2009, but it continues to show that millions of U.S.
workers don't have a 40-hour workweek.
Though the Affordable Care Act sets a 30-hour-a-week full-time definition for employer-based health care coverage, the Labor Department's household survey allows people to self-report as part time if they usually work less than 35 hours a week. There's no overriding Labor Department definition of part-time work.
Officially, the department says: "The Fair Labor Standards Act does not define full-time employment or part-time employment. This is a matter generally to be determined by the employer."
That freedom, in part, has allowed employers to use different part-time definitions. Part-time work can mean 36 hours a week in some companies.
The variations have made it a challenge for some part-time workers to figure out which companies might allow them to participate in employee benefit programs. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, only about one-fourth of companies that offer health benefits open their programs to part-time employees.
As a result, some well-known national companies such as Starbucks, Costco, Land's End and Whole Foods are flooded with applications because they're known as employers that allow part-time workers _ of varying definitions _ to participate in the company health insurance plans.
According to a report published in May by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 59.6 percent of full-time workers had health care coverage in 2011 through their jobs, compared with 15.7 percent of part-time workers.
"Both have been trending downward since 2007," wrote researcher Paul Fronstin. "However, in relative terms, part-time workers have experienced a much larger decline in coverage than full-time workers. Between 2007 and 2011, full-time workers experienced a 2.8 percent reduction in the likelihood of having coverage from their own jobs, while part-time workers experienced a 15.7 percent decline."
Job counselors emphasize that part-time work is better than no work, but it's a problem if the jobs don't provide enough money to live on and if few or no employee benefits are attached. Part-time workers in low-paying jobs have trouble paying for basic expenses, much less affording health care coverage, even if they're eligible to participate in company plans.
Labor market analysts say it's difficult to track the economic health of part-time workers. The Labor Department's part-time data are based on a household survey in which workers self-report their status. The squishiness in the data also stems from many workers' moving into the temporary and contract labor ranks, and such "contingent" labor may be for part-time hours, depending on the project and the week.
The overall part-timing of jobs concerns Mortimer Zuckerman, editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report. A nation of part-time jobs creates an "army of underutilized labor," he said in a recent editorial. And he warned:
"From academia to retail, government to warehouse work, employers are increasingly offering part-time work or nominally full-time jobs with lower wages and fewer benefits. Obamacare will accelerate this trend. ... America's challenge is to avoid descending totally into a low-wage, part-time economy with stagnant growth and employers pressed to shorten workers' hours or ask them to take unpaid leave."
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