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With dramatic rise of part-time jobs, an imperiled middle class

Will part-time work soon become the shaky foundation of our economy?

A story in Monday's Wall Street Journal, headlined The Shift to Part-Time, explains how many restaurants and other hospitality businesses are trying to shift more of their workforces from full to part time to minimize the financial impact of the federal government's new health care plan known as the Affordable Care Act. That law requires by 2015 (delayed from 2014) employers with 50 or more full-time workers to offer affordable insurance to employees working 30 or more hours a week.

Firms (and eligible employees) that do not do so will face fines.

For some companies anticipating sharp hikes in health care costs, a scramble has begun to employ more part-timers — those working less than 30 hours a week.

One local strategy, devised by St. Petersburg human resource outsourcing firm Modern Business Associates, would help different area restaurants and fast-food franchises "share" employees. The idea is to keep each worker under 30 hours per employer while letting employees work more than 30 hours per week. The test program will involve about 500 employees of both chain and local restaurants looking to retain their full-time employees without counting them as such. Modern Business Associates' Mark Lettelleir says the program — a software data base — will be tested this year and be in place to start 2014.

Is this a trend confined to restaurants or perhaps hotels? Or are the cost benefits of part-time work likely to sweep over more of the economy?

Staffing companies like Tampa's Kforce have been adamant for many months that part-time jobs are going to be big in the coming years.

It's not just because of new expenses from the Affordable Care Act. Businesses shocked by the severity and painful downsizing of the last recession are still wary of bringing on full-timers when part-timers can be hired and let go easily as the economy demands.

Job numbers also support this trend. Nationwide in 2013, companies have added 93,000 part-time employees a month on average compared with just 22,000 full-time workers per month.

In 2012, the opposite was true. Employers added 31,000 part-timers per month on average versus 171,000 full-time workers.

A spike in part-time work dominated June's unemployment figures, released earlier this month. Headlines about the nation's jobless rate remaining flat at 7.6 percent and the economy adding 195,000 jobs missed a critical point. In fact, no net full-time jobs were created last month. The net number of full-time jobs actually fell by at least 162,000 in June.

All of the net new jobs created last month were part-time jobs, a point made by Forbes over the weekend.

Maybe the shift in jobs for the first half of 2013, and those for June, are just part of a rough but brief cycle we're going through. Maybe full-time jobs will rise along with economic confidence.

But what if they do not? What if part-time work becomes more of the norm?

Incomes will stagnate or shrink. Opportunities to advance will be harder to come by. Then many in the middle class really are in peril.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

With dramatic rise of part-time jobs, an imperiled middle class 07/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 6:40am]
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