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Working longer and enjoying it less?

Wed, Jun 27, 2012

In the 19th century, the workweek was 60 – 72 hours Monday through Saturday with Sunday off. The fight for the eight-hour day has been a rallying call for the working class since the early days of the union movement. An American Federation of Labor pamphlet in 1899 stated: “Rest cultivates, drudgery brutalizes.” While a shorter workday was viewed as a cure for unemployment, low wages and a host of social ills, it also meant more leisure time to enjoy life. It meant more time for one’s family. Shorter hours would also provide workers time for personal development to pursue their talents in art, music and other endeavors.

After a century of struggle, the eight-hour day and 40 hour week was generally realized for workers in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This was one of the greatest achievements of the labor movement. Even though the FLSA that provided a 40 hour week and overtime pay is still intact today, the intent of the law has been seriously undermined over the last 30 years. The loss of millions of manufacturing jobs to low wage nations as a result of free trade, the aggressive campaign against unions and the ever increasing reliance on part-time and temporary employment have undermined wages in the U.S. The declining standard of living of the working families has forced many workers to take second, and even third jobs to make ends meet. In effect, many wage earners are working more than the standard eight-hour day/40-hour week.

Gone are the days when a factory worker could support seven children on one income, own a home, feed and clothe the family, own a car, take the family on a vacation each year, have full-paid family health insurance and a decent retirement as my father did.

Part-time and full-time temporary jobs now comprise 19.3 percent of the U.S. employment. Many wage earners cannot even find full-time employment today. Instead, they are trying to eke a living by working just part-time and temporary full-time jobs. This is especially true in higher education. Unemployment in December was 8.5 percent but “under employment” is not reported as being unemployed. Millions of other unemployed workers have stopped searching for jobs. They too are not reported in the 8.5 percent rate.

A friend of mine is under-employed. He has been working numerous temporary full-time and part-time jobs for several years making about $25,000 annually. He has a master’s degree and puts in about 50-60 hours per week. One of his jobs for the past two years is full-time but only for nine months with no health insurance, sick leave or other benefits. He does substitute teaching and tutors in the evenings. He cannot find a full-time job, but is not unemployed.

Besides low wages, a major incentive for hiring part-time and temporary workers is the high cost of private health insurance. All of the developed nations have national health care system that shift the cost of health care from private employers to the general public through taxation. In the U.S., individual employers must purchase health insurance for themselves and, if they choose, for their employees. Our private for profit health care system is the costliest in the world in terms of the gross national product. Yet, more than 50 million Americans have no health insurance. Decent health insurance coverage costs at least $10,000 for an individual and much more for family coverage. Many employers have opted out of full-time employment for this reason alone.

Tom Suhrbur, StreetWise Contributor

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