New data series on involuntary part-time work Essay

The number of nonagricultural workers “on part-time schedules
for economic reasons,” shows a strong relationship to business
cycle trends, according to seasonally adjusted data from the Current
Population Survey. The number and proportion of persons involuntarily working part time–sometimes referred to as the “partially
unemployed”–generally rise during a recession and decline during a
recovery period. In a comprehensive examination and analysis of these
data which appeared in the June 1983 Monthly Labor Review, Robert W.
Bednarzik demonstrated that during cyclical periods, the incidence of
economic part-time work moves in the same direction as, but leads,
movements in the civilian unemployment rate. Bednarzik explained that
such part-time employment typically rises before unemployment begins to
increase during a recession, mainly because employers tend to reduce
hours of work when possible before laying off employees. During
recovery periods, employers usually restore the hours of those on
shortened workweeks before rehiring laid-off workers. The main focus of
Bednarzik’s analysis, however, was the relationship and variation
in cyclical behavior of the two main causes of involuntary part-time
work, cutbacks in weekly hours due to slack work and failure to find
full-time work, both of which were seasonally adjusted specifically for
his study.

Following up on Bednarzik’s analysis, BLS tested the cyclical
sensitivity and accuracy of the new series and confirmed that these data
captured more clearly the distinctions between the concepts of persons
working part time involuntarily than did the existing published series,
which divided the total number into those who “usually work full
time” and those who “usually work part time.” Thus, to
provide data users with more relevant series that can isolate the main
causes of part-time work, BLS has replaced the existing usual full- and
part-time series with the new series. Effective with data for January
1985, the new series are published in monthly issues of “The
Employment Situation” news release and Employment and Earnings,
and, beginning with this issue, are also published in table 4 in the
Current Labor Statistics section of the Monthly Labor Review. Data are
published for all persons (in agriculture and nonagricultural industries
combined) as well as for persons in nonagricultural industries only.
(The former series were limited to workers in nonagricultural
industries.) Time series based on the new definitions are available
back to 1955 and can be obtained from BLS.

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The new series clearly show different cyclical behavior, which, in
turn, illustrates different underlying labor market problems. The more
cyclical “slack work” series reflects short-run adjustments
made by firms to minimize layoffs and subsequent recalls or hirings.
Thus, slack work rises sharply during economic downturns, but shows
rapid improvement during the early stages of recovery. The
“failure to find full-time work” series reflect the
experience, skills, and training of workers; the match of available
workers to work schedules; and the types and locations of job openings,
as well as the general state of the economy. The “failure to
find” series is clearly less cyclical. Indeed, in contrast to the
“slack work” component, it typically rises during the early
stages of a recovery, probably because many unemployed workers find and
accept part-time jobs (perhaps after exhausting unemployment insurance
benefits) as a better alternative to remaining fully unemployed without

Recent data illustrate this point. The following tabulation shows
the number of persons (seasonally adjusted) and the percent of total
civilian employment on part-time schedules for economic reasons during
September of 1982 and 1983 and January 1985:

The number of persons involuntarily working part time due to slack
work dropped by 1 million in the first 12 months of recovery from the
series high in September 1982 and by only 265,000 in the subsequent 16
months (through January 1985). During the first 12 months of recovery,
the proportion of the total employed comprised by persons on short
workweeks due to slack work fell from 3.7 to 2.6 percent. In January
1985, the group accounted for 2.3 percent of the employed. This pattern
of decline was similar to that following the recovery from the 1973-75
recession. Thus, it seems clear that this component shows rapid
improvement early in the recovery, as employers rest ore hours of those
workers retained but with reduced workweeks before adding new workers,
and then improves more slowly as the recovery matures. In contrast, the
other major component–persons who can only find part-time jobs–showed
no improvement early in the recovery period; indeed, it rose slightly.
It did moderate later, but not by the magnitude of the decline in the
slack-work component.


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