Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday March 26th, 2013, 4:22pm

Labor Advocates Hold Hearing To Address Part-Time Workers' Economic Struggles

Labor advocates hosted a hearing in Chicago today and highlighted the plight of part-time workers in retail and other service industries, while underscoring the need for federal legislation that would extend protections, including health care, family and medical leave and pensions, to part-time employees.

The Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act of 2013 (HR 675), sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-9), aims to do just that by building upon the Affordable Care Act and ensuring that part-time employees who work less than 30 hours a week have access to important workplace benefits.

As it stands, many of the federally mandated work-related benefits apply only to full-time workers, but that set up no longer meets the needs of the nation's workforce, Schakowsky said at the hearing, which was held at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

More than one in 10 workers in the United States work in the retail industry, making it the largest employer in the nation. Labor activists at the hearing called it the “underemployed industry."

“It is very dangerous for the United States of America to have the kind of income disparity that we have right now,” Schakowsky said. “So don’t talk to me, in Congress, about the most pressing problem is to cut the deficit. The most important thing that we have to do ... is that we need good jobs, we need union jobs, we need to raise the minimum wage and we have to insist that employers of part-time workers do their fair share in our economy.”

Most part-time workers live a life of constant uncertainty, especially when it comes to their schedules. For the last two decades, the part-time workforce has dramatically increased in the United States, speakers at the hearing said. And the majority of part-time workers wish they could be full-time, they added.

“It used to be that if you had a part-time job, you were a student ... or you wanted to just pick up a little bit of extra money,” said Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director of Citizen Action Illinois. “That’s not the case anymore. For too many Americans, a part-time job is the only job you can find.”   

Living a part-time workers’ life of uncertainty makes it harder to attend college and pick up a second part-time job, among other setbacks, DeLaforgue explained.

Bill Fletcher with the Retail Justice Alliance explained that just a few decades ago, being a retail worker meant having a stable career.

“Now what we have instead ... are people struggling every day to assemble enough hours in order to assemble enough pay in order to survive.”

And the typical wage of a retail worker is falling, said Marc Doussard, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In Chicago, for example, 40 percent of retail workers earned $12 or less per hour in 2001, and today that number exceeds 50 percent, he said.

About 44 percent of retail workers in Chicago made $400 a week or less in 2001, and currently that figure has reached 54 percent, which outpaces the national trend, he said.

Economic experts explained that if large retailers took the initiative to invest in their workers by paying a wage of at least $12.25 an hour, or $25,000 annually, it would make the retail industry and the U.S. economy stronger.

"We found that contrary to conventional wisdom, paying decent wages doesn’t come with a high price tag for consumers, and it’s holding back the economy from million of dollars in growth and holding back sales in the retail industry," said Catherine Ruetschlin, policy analyst at Demos.

The Part-Time Worker Rights Act is needed now, labor supporters said, because some large employers are expected to move more full-time workers into part-time status to avoid having to follow provisions in the Affordable Care Act once it takes full effect in January.

Health care reform laws require employers with 50 or more full-time employees to provide quality, affordable insurance coverage for workers who clock in an average of at least 30 hours a week.

Schakowsky said employers blame Obamacare for their decision to reduce employee’s hours from 30 to 29 weekly.

“So instead of accepting this responsibility, beginning in January when Obamacare finally is fully implemented ... we’re going to see several employers, including some in fast food and retail, having taken steps to skirt the responsibility by reducing or capping the hours of their part-time workforce,” she explained.

Under Obamacare, large employers would be fined for not offering affordable health coverage to full-time workers, and Schakowsky's measure looks to extend those penalties to part-time employees.

Large employers would be required to prorate the benefits they offer to those workers. For example, (based on a 30-hour workweek) if a part-time employee clocks 15 hours per week, the employer would offer 50 percent of the benefits.

In addition to Schakowsky's part-time worker measure, other policy solutions to assist workers includes raising the minimum wage, expanding health care and childcare coverage, and raising enforcement budgets to make sure workers can exercise the right to bargain with their employers without the fear of losing their job, said Doussard.

“The solutions, thankfully, are clear, and the main challenge is finding the political will to implement them,” he said.

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