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Forgotten underclass: part-time workers

On Equal Pay Day, let's remember the 27 million part-time workers in America who earn lower pay for the same work done by full-timers – and get denied benefits like sick days. Promoting high-quality, part-time work would restore fairness, raise family incomes, and boost the economy.

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Today is Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how many weeks into 2011 women must work simply to match what men made in 2010.

It’s a stunning pay gap, but there’s a growing class of workers whose conditions are even more outrageous: part-timers. The great recession has forced millions of full-time workers to accept the second-class status of lower pay and near-zero benefits. Indeed, involuntary part-time employment has doubled in the past five years to 8.4 million, while the total number of part-timer workers has swollen to 27 million. Yet for all we hear about their plight, they might as well be working on the moon.

Private stimulus

This must change. Promoting high-quality, part-time work is not only a basic fairness issue – it is sound policy for a sluggish economy. Equal pay for equal work would raise family incomes across the board, providing a much-needed private stimulus.

Who are these part-time workers? Two-thirds are women, most of them mothers who are trying to provide for their families or hang onto their careers while also raising children. An increasing number are men who have lost full-time jobs or who are looking for a second job as family incomes become more precarious.

Many are seniors, facing the same economic pressures.

Part-time workers pay a steep price, very simply, because part-time work usually pays less per hour than the same or equivalent work performed by full-timers.

A recent report from the Joint Economic Committee, “The Earnings Penalty for Part-time Work: An Obstacle to Equal Pay,” confirms this fact. For example, in sales and related occupations, part-time workers earn as little as 58 cents for every dollar of earnings a full-time worker receives for the same time on the job.

Part-time workers, routinely excluded from basic labor laws, are also disproportionately denied such benefits as health insurance, pensions, family leave, and sick days.

Our organization in New York, A Better Balance, sees the cost of this inequality up close. Through our free legal clinic, we meet low-income workers, often single mothers, whose low pay and inadequate benefits threaten their ability to meet basic needs such as food, housing, and child care. And when they lose their jobs, many face problems obtaining unemployment insurance, or fail to qualify altogether, pushing these families deeper into poverty. Even part-time workers who are fortunate enough to land gigs at professional firms tell us about pay inequities and lack of opportunities for advancement.

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