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Part-time work is becoming too much the norm

A "Now Hiring!" sign is displayed at an

A "Now Hiring!" sign is displayed at an Olive Garden restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif. Credit: AP (2010)

Maybe by 2050, most Americans will be unpaid interns. They will go to work for the honor of being allowed to pitch in. Eventually, they might even pick up a few paid hours.

Not so long ago, interns were young people who signed on for the summer at modest wages. Employers trained them with an eye toward eventual hire.

The interns, in turn, test-drove the employers. They had a chance to figure out whether they were heading toward a tolerable career or a lifetime of regrets; important information for both sides.

Today, alas, paid internships sometimes seem as scarce as winning Powerball tickets. The recession made things worse, ravaging regular employment along with internships of any kind. Though it scarcely needs telling anymore, millions of people lost their jobs, and for those who found new ones, the jobs too often paid less.

According to a recent Labor Department report, only 56 percent of Americans laid off from January 2009 to December 2011 had found jobs by the beginning of this year. And more than half of those took jobs at lower pay.

A report from the National Employment Law Project echoes these findings, noting that most of the jobs lost to the recession paid in the middle range of wages. Most of those added were low-wage, paying $7.50 to $13.75 an hour.

Many of the new jobs are in retailing and hospitality, where the use of part-time labor has exploded. Typically, these workers lack steady hours and must be available on short notice if they hope to work.

It is a nearly impossible situation for single mothers who need to arrange childcare, or for college students with class schedules.

But these are the people who commonly work part time.

Since 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail and wholesale sector has cut a million full-time jobs and added about half a million part-time ones.

Surprising as it may seem, the shift was well under way before the recession. According to a New York Times report this past fall, over the past two decades, many major retailers went from employing a healthy majority of full-time workers (around three-quarters) to employing about 70 percent part-time employees.

Technology is one reason for the change. Computers can tell a retailer when it is apt to be busiest. All the company has to do is schedule a few extra shifts and it can satisfy customers' demands.

Because part-time workers generally are paid less and receive fewer benefits, employers can keep a large pool of them more cheaply than a smaller group of full-time employees.. It helps that fewer (and weaker) unions are around to demand predictable schedules or minimum hours.

A part-time job with uncertain hours rarely adds up to a living wage.

It also makes taking a second part-time job problematical. As a result, the part-time trend has forced many thousands of Americans to hang by their thumbs.

Despite these well-established trends, as the Affordable Care Act moves ahead, the outcry among service-oriented employers is rising.

For sure they will have to limit workers' hours, they warn. They must, to elude the requirement that they either offer full-timer workers a minimum level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

Some companies are already taking action. The head of Pillar Hotels & Resorts told The Wall Street Journal he is looking to hire an army of oldsters willing to accept part-time jobs. Hardee's is hiring more part-time workers, as is the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. All blame the health care law.

The Obama administration is banking on the example of Massachusetts, whose statewide health care system has not dramatically altered employment practices.

It also expects the health care requirement to help employers, by placing them on a more equal footing.

With rules still to be finalized, no one can predict exactly how the health care overhaul will unfold, and what kind of tweaking will be necessary to make it work.

It seems a good bet, though, that health care will appear more connected to labor laws, and the basic treatment of workers, than it may now seem.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage (today a woeful $7.25 an hour), but it did not address minimum hours. Maybe now it will have to.

A labor market built on sporadic, part-time work is not quite Unpaid Intern Nation. But it is awfully close.

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