More U.S. Workers Have Highly Volatile, Unstable Incomes

Elizabeth Grossman December 28, 2016

More Americans work without full-time employers yet policies fail to address this new reality. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The U.S stock mar­ket may be at record highs and U.S. unem­ploy­ment at its low­est lev­el since the Great Reces­sion, but income inequal­i­ty remains stub­born­ly high.

Con­tribut­ing to this inequal­i­ty is the fact that while more Amer­i­cans are work­ing than at any time since August 2007, more peo­ple are work­ing part time, errat­ic and unpre­dictable sched­ules — with­out full-time, steady employ­ment. Since 2007, the num­ber of Amer­i­cans invol­un­tar­i­ly work­ing part time has increased by near­ly 45 per­cent. More Amer­i­cans than before are part of what’s con­sid­ered the con­tin­gent work­force, work­ing on-call or on-demand, and as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or self-employed free­lancers, often with earn­ings that vary dra­mat­i­cal­ly month to month.

These work­ers span the socioe­co­nom­ic spec­trum, from low-wage work­ers in ser­vice, retail, hos­pi­tal­i­ty and restau­rant jobs — and temps in indus­try, con­struc­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing — to high­ly edu­cat­ed Amer­i­cans work­ing job-to-job because their pro­fes­sions lack full­time employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties giv­en the struc­ture of many infor­ma­tion age busi­ness­es. As Andrew Stet­tner, Michael Cas­sidy and George Went­worth point out in their new report, A New Safe­ty Net for an Era of Unsta­ble Earn­ings, what all these work­ers have in com­mon are high­ly volatile, unsta­ble incomes and a lack of access to the tra­di­tion­al U.S. unem­ploy­ment insur­ance safe­ty net.

The pro­grams we have to help peo­ple are very biased toward tra­di­tion­al incomes,” says Stet­tner, senior fel­low at The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion. Volatil­i­ty in earn­ings is a real­ly big problem.”

Those with the least to lose are most like­ly to lose it”

Pub­lished by The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion, a pro­gres­sive, non­par­ti­san think tank, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project (NELP), which advo­cates for poli­cies that expand access to work and labor pro­tec­tions for low-wage work­ers, the report found that those in the con­tin­gent or non­tra­di­tion­al work­force expe­ri­ence near­ly twice as much earn­ings volatil­i­ty as stan­dard workers.”

It also found that because of this sit­u­a­tion, between 2008 and 2013, three out of five prime earn­ers expe­ri­enced at least as much as a 50 per­cent drop in their month-to-month income. Half expe­ri­enced month-to-month income drops of more than 100 percent.

This broad issue of under­em­ploy­ment,” says NELP senior coun­sel George Went­worth, there’s less of a light on it and these peo­ple are not show­ing up in nation­al unem­ploy­ment fig­ures. But these work­ers are strug­gling and many of them are not mak­ing ends meet.”

Cen­tral to this prob­lem is that most work­ers now employed part time are mak­ing less than what they made pre­vi­ous­ly, work­ing full time. At the same time, their part-time or inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor sta­tus means they are like­ly not eli­gi­ble for a full com­ple­ment — if any, in the case of self-employed free­lancers — of stan­dard employ­ment ben­e­fits, includ­ing employ­er paid health insur­ance or any form of unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, explains Wentworth.

As the report notes, Those with the least to lose are most like­ly to lose it.”

Pol­i­cy recommendations

Both Stet­tner and Went­worth explain that his­tor­i­cal pol­i­cy respons­es — and those set up to help work­ers laid off dur­ing the Great Reces­sion — focus on tra­di­tion­al employ­ment sit­u­a­tions. Typ­i­cal unem­ploy­ment insur­ance is also biased against those who take up part-time or self-employ­ment gigs while they’re look­ing for new full-time jobs by reduc­ing unem­ploy­ment pay­ments. Some states have par­tial unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits designed for part-time work­ers, includ­ing those who’ve invol­un­tar­i­ly had their hours reduced, but these vary wide­ly. The report found that for work­ers whose hours are cut from full time to part time, ten states would replace half of their lost earn­ings while four­teen states would pro­vide no ben­e­fits at all.”

To address what’s becom­ing the new nor­mal for U.S. work­ers, the report makes sev­er­al rec­om­men­da­tions. It pro­pos­es that states offer par­tial unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits to work­ers earn­ing less than 150 per­cent of what they’d qual­i­fy for week­ly if they were laid off (rather than work­ing part time). This would sub­stan­tial­ly improve cov­er­age for work­ers whose hours have been cut or who take part-time jobs after los­ing full­time jobs.

It also should be eas­i­er to file for these ben­e­fits,” says Stet­tner, explain­ing that cur­rent work doc­u­men­ta­tion require­ments don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the real­i­ty of how part timers work and get paid.

The report also rec­om­mends broad­en­ing unem­ploy­ment insur­ance sup­port for work-shar­ing pro­grams. Work-share pro­grams, explains Went­worth, are designed to help employ­ers avoid lay­offs by retain­ing their exist­ing work­force but with reduced hours.

The report pro­pos­es beef­ing up exist­ing finan­cial sup­port for work-share pro­grams to reduce the impact to employ­ees of reduced hours. This is basi­cal­ly for high road employ­ers,” says Wentworth.

The report also rec­om­mends a pilot pro­gram to pro­vide unem­ploy­ment insur­ance to free­lancers who don’t have a tra­di­tion­al employ­er rela­tion­ship. This is per­haps the most chal­leng­ing of the report’s pro­pos­als since it seeks to address cir­cum­stances that extend well beyond the issue of reduced hours. Ideas include giv­ing free­lancers bet­ter access to cer­tain tax cred­its in ways that help even out swings in earn­ings. It could also involve build­ing on inter­na­tion­al exam­ples such as pro­fes­sion­al guilds in Europe, where peo­ple con­tribute in order to draw ben­e­fits when need­ed, Stet­tner explains.

These pro­pos­als go beyond and build on those already being dis­cussed at the state, local and fed­er­al lev­el to require employ­ers to pro­vide more sta­ble sched­ul­ing, pay a min­i­mum num­ber of hours if work­ers are called for a shift and that pro­tect work­ers who request sched­ule changes. They would also begin to address the sit­u­a­tions of the esti­mat­ed 19.1 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who depend sole­ly on free­lance income and are cur­rent­ly with­out any employ­ment safe­ty net.

We’re just scratch­ing the sur­face to under­stand how to come up with a bet­ter set of mar­ket-based and gov­ern­ment solu­tions,” says Stet­tner. We’ve cre­at­ed a whole view of the world that now applies to only about half the work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca,” he says. We have this huge divide we need to ham­mer on. It should con­cern everyone.”

Eliz­a­beth Gross­man is the author of Chas­ing Mol­e­cules: Poi­so­nous Prod­ucts, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chem­istry, High Tech Trash: Dig­i­tal Devices, Hid­den Tox­i­cs, and Human Health, and oth­er books. Her work has appeared in a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, Yale e360, Envi­ron­men­tal Health Per­spec­tives, Moth­er Jones, Ensia, Time, Civ­il Eats, The Guardian, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Salon and The Nation.
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