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Dina Bakst's picture

Despite shrinking budgets and dire economic forecasts, at least four Republican governors are planning to turn away a portion of the federal stimulus funds. Why? Because these funds would require them to extend unemployment insurance benefits to part-time workers who have been laid off in their states. As Republican Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi recently told FOX news this reform would “require the state to pay people who are not willing to take a full-time job.”

Tell this to the mother of a special needs child whose part-time work schedule makes it possible for her daughter to get the ongoing medical or social services she needs. Or the worker who took a cut in pay and hours to care for her elderly father because he could no longer care himself.

Since the Unemployment Insurance System (UI) was established in 1935, the labor force has undergone a radical transformation. The biggest change in over the last 70 years has been the dramatic rise of women in the paid workforce. Today, over 70% of children live in households with a working single parent or two parents who work. As a result, most families do not have a stay-at-home parent and are struggling more than ever to meet the competing demands of work and family.

These families often turn to part-time work as a strategy for coping with their caregiving responsibilities. Unfortunately, they pay dearly for the flexibility. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), part-time schedules are often negotiated on an individual basis and come with a steep price tag: 20% less in earnings per hour than for full-time workers with the same level of education and experience, fewer benefits (such as health insurance or pensions) and limited advancement opportunities. Most part-time workers are women, and many of these jobs are concentrated in a limited number of low-paying industries such as retail and sales.

As economist Heather Boushey explained in her recent testimony before Congress, men’s jobs have disappeared in this recession. As a result, families are increasingly relying on women’s earnings, which are typically lower than men’s salaries. Also, since millions of women work less than full-time, families are increasingly being supported by workers who lack basic benefits such as health insurance coverage, paid time off and the safety net of unemployment insurance.

The federal stimulus bill, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is designed, in part, to address these challenges by expanding eligibility for unemployment insurance to part-time and low-income workers. Many of these workers receive no benefits, even though their employers have paid unemployment insurance taxes on these wages. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), more than half of the states treat part-time workers unfavorably. The UIMA closes this gap. By expanding eligibility for UI, the $7 billion of incentive funding will allow more low-income and part-time workers to qualify for UI benefits, including workers who are laid off from part-time employment and are seeking a comparable part-time job.

Incentivizing states to cover more part-time workers is an important step towards helping struggling families survive the current economic turmoil. It will ensure that hard working families can meet basic needs such as housing, food and transportation, and avoid falling into poverty when faced with job loss.

Still, it’s a shame that it takes a recession to reveal how badly our public policies have failed to meet the needs of our current workforce. Right now, we don’t need negative and outdated statements about part-time workers; we need a UI system that reflects our economic reality and treats part-time workers equitably. And as more women become family breadwinners, it’s critical that we examine all our labor laws to ensure parity in pay and benefits for part-time workers and recognize that high-quality part-time work is more crucial than ever to families’ economic security.

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