Don’t blame the health care law for high part-time employment

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Don’t blame the health care law for the high levels of part-time employment. In fact, according to the definitions in the law, part-time work does not increase at all in proportion to employment, at least not yet.

Almost 8 million Americans were working part-time in September because they couldn’t find a full-time job. In total, 27 million people, or nearly one-fifth of all employees, work part-time, well above historical standards.

Many critics of the Obama administration have pointed to the prevalence of part-time jobs in the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law better known as “Obamacare.” The law’s so-called “employer mandate” requires most medium and large-sized businesses to provide health insurance to their full-time employees. This, critics say, is prompting companies to hire part-time workers instead.

The Obama administration said earlier this year it would delay the requirement until 2015 to give businesses more time to comply. But some employers have said they are cutting full-time hires nonetheless. Indeed, part-time employment increased at the start of this year, while full-time employment growth stagnated.

But a closer look at the data provides little evidence for the idea that the health care law is driving a shift towards part-time work, although this may be the case as the term of office approaches.

First, over a longer period, part-time work has actually declined as a share of employment in recent years. Before the recession, about 17% of U.S. employees worked 35 hours or less, the norm Department of Labor definition of “part-time”. During the recession, this figure increased, briefly reaching 20%. It has trended downward since then, but only slowly, reaching 19% in September.

The rise in part-time employment at the start of the year now looks like a statistical error: part-time employment fell in late 2012, then rebounded in early 2013, and has now fallen for two consecutive months. But even if the uptrend resumes, it’s doubtful the health care law is to blame.

In its statistics, the Ministry of Labor considers “part-time” anyone who usually works less than 35 hours per week. The law on health is, however, stricter: it counts anyone who works at least 30 hours per week as a full-time employee. This means that a person who works 34 hours per week would appear in the labor data as a part-time worker, but would still be considered a full-time worker under Obamacare, and would therefore be subject to the mandate of the employer.

If the health law prompts employers to cut employees’ hours, the most vulnerable workers are likely to be those working just above the 30-hour limit. This means that the data would show a drop in the number of people working 30 to 34 hours and an increase in those working less than 30 hours.

This is not what is happening. The share of part-time workers who report usually working between 30 and 34 hours in their main job has remained roughly stable over the past three years at around 28%. (Data for September is not yet available.) If anything, it has actually increased over the past year, although the change has been minor. The share of people working just under 30 hours has indeed increased somewhat, but the share of people working less than 25 hours has fallen, suggesting that employers are devoting more hours to part-timers rather than reducing the number of hours. full time hours.

In other words: If the Ministry of Labor used the same definition of “part-time” as the Health Act, its data would show no increase in part-time work over the past year.

Other data tells a similar story. Average weekly hours, a measure that comes from businesses rather than the workers themselves, have been stable over the past year and are near their highest level since the recession. Restaurants, one of the industries most often cited as likely to shift to part-time workers, have not cut workers’ hours in the past year.

None of this, of course, means employers won’t cut workers’ hours in the future. The employer’s mandate does not come into effect until 2015, which means companies have plenty of time to adjust their hiring practices. But there is little evidence that they have done so yet.

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