Monday, December 18, 2017
Business

Drop in Florida unemployment masks glut of underemployed workers

Dominique Evans is ensnared in what has become a familiar job-market shuffle: trying to trade one part-time job for a slightly better part-time job.

The 22-year-old St. Petersburg resident, who works about 25 hours a week at a Sweetbay supermarket, interviewed with Capital One last week for a 30-hour-a-week position as a customer service rep.

Evans said she'd prefer full-time, but embraces opportunity where she finds it. "It's a little bit more hours but pays a lot more."

The 12 million-plus Americans seeking jobs and officially counted as "unemployed" grab the headlines. But beyond that are nearly 11 million more people like Evans who are forced to settle for part-time jobs or who have temporarily suspended a search for full-time work out of frustration.

The scourge of underemployment is nothing new; it's been one of the defining characteristics of the Great Recession.

The trouble is, it's not going away.

Even as Florida's unemployment rate has slowly fallen from historic highs, underemployment remains a millstone hampering recovery. For the third quarter of this year, Florida's unemployment rate averaged 8.9 percent, while the government's broadest measure of underemployment stood at 16.4 percent.

Typically, in a healthy economy, the gap is much smaller. In 2006, for instance, when Florida's unemployment rate was a rock bottom 3.2 percent, underemployment was 6.2 percent.

Those statistics understate the problem, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute. The government's broadest underemployment rate, called U6, includes unemployed job seekers, part-timers seeking full-time work and discouraged job seekers who are temporarily not actively looking.

"It captures underemployment in the hours worked; it doesn't capture underemployment in skills and experience," Shierholz said. "It doesn't include (for example) the chemical engineering grad working as a barista."

Nor does it include workers who have not recovered from severe cuts in pay and benefits, she said.

By far, the biggest single group driving up the official underemployment rate are some 8 million part-timers unable to find full-time work.

Some of them may have been hired with the understanding their job would be part-time.

"The bigger group is those that have had their hours cut back. Most of these people are in a business that just doesn't have the work for them to do," Shierholz said. "If I had my hours cut by any at all it would be a huge burden. And that's happening all over the place."

Andrew Konyn has seen the pullback. He used to routinely clock more than 40 hours a week as a cook.

During more recent stints at fast-food places like Steak 'n Shake, the 37-year-old Lutz resident has felt lucky when management gave him even 30 hours. "No one," Konyn said, "ever wants to give full-time anymore."

Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, said some employers have cited concern over paying benefits and rising health care costs, specifically the Affordable Care Act, in shying away from full-time hires.

But the bottom line, he said, is that employers would dole out more hours to workers if there was greater customer demand. "The story of this recession and gradual recovery is insufficient demand. There's just not enough to drive job growth."

A national measurement of "average hours worked" has been steadily increasing this year. But Shierholz said that could be deceptive. People who were cut back to 20 hours a week may now be working 30 hours a week. So they would still be below the 35-hour threshhold to be classified as full-time.

Wages in decline, too

Working part-time has its lures.

Morgan Launikitis of Valrico was drawn to Capital One's job fair at a St. Petersburg hotel last week because the financial services giant was promoting a part-time, work-at-home program. The flexibility would give her more time to care for her two young daughters. "It's a good fit for me," she said.

Down the hall, Jamira Dixon, 33, of Tampa had just finished her Capital One interview. She viewed a part-time job with a corporation offering strong benefits as preferable to her last experience with a temp agency. The temp agency assigned her to a 40-hour-a-week customer relations job, but there was no path for her to eventually join that company and get full benefits.

Part-time, under the right circumstances, can be a stepping stone to a full-time job.

That's certainly true for some recent college graduates and current undergrads that nab part-time internships, said Drema Howard, who runs the University of South Florida Career Center on the Tampa campus. "Some are looking at internships as the new entry-level to full employment," she said.

There are economic consequences, however, when a labor force becomes populated with more part-timers than ever.

In a "State of Working America" analysis based on data through 2010, the Economic Policy Institute found that workers who were laid off during the recession and found new, full-time jobs were paid on average 10.5 percent less in weekly earnings. Add in those laid-off workers who found part-time jobs along with those who found full-time work and the weekly wage cut turned out to be nearly 22 percent.

Wages today are not only sagging, but have tumbled to an all-time low as a percentage of the economy — down 20 percent from their 1970 peak. It's a tough cycle: Lower wages translate to less consumer spending, which crimps demand, which then threatens to curtail future hiring and wages.

Paul Wright is no fan of this new economy. He got caught in the underemployment grind during his last job working for a Tampa manufacturer of bike seats.

The pay was $8 an hour. Though billed as full-time, it was effectively part-time, with workers often sent home early when orders were down, he said. Finally, business slowed enough this year that Wright was laid off, forcing him to seek another at least part-time job.

Wright, 47, thinks wistfully of his father, who worked 30 years making valves for the same company in Cleveland, TRW, before retiring with a pension.

"That job doesn't exist any more. It's a different world now," he said. "I don't think the economy is improving to where people can get jobs to actually make a living."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington @tampabay.com.

 
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