The Part Time Worker Blues


There are many different reasons women and mothers get the short end of the stick in our social order, but a major factor has to be how part-time work is structured in this country. This is a big part of the reason women’s earnings and women’s wealth trails that of men so dramatically.

The US Joint Economic Committee recently published “The Earnings Penalty for Part-Time Work: An Obstacle to Equal Pay”. The report shows that neary 2/3 of part-time workers are women. In 2009, that was 17 million women in the U.S. It is true that most women do work full-time outside the home, however one fourth of all working women are in the part-time category. (Only 13% of employed men are working part-time.) The food service and personal care industries are predominantly part-time fields, and employ far more women than men. In these and other occupations, part-time workers make less per hour than full time workers in the same field, even though they are doing precisely the same work, though for fewer hours. For example, a part-time worker in sales makes 58 cents for every dollar a full-time salesperson earns. In computer and mathematical occupations, a part-timer is earning only 63 cents for every dollar a full-timer earns. In addition to a lower rate of compensation, part-timers don’t see the health benefits, paid time off, or pension plans that many full-timers can take advantage of. So, the hourly difference actually underrepresents the economic discrepancy.

The appeal of part-time work for women is likely the decreased hours, which they need to accommodate their other obligations, like caring for children or other dependent family members. It is no surprise, then, that offers for “work at home” are targeted at women in general and mothers in particular, promising great wages, especially on the internet. Many of these offers are outright scams, preying on the competing interests of mothers to make some money and care for their children. Sharon Lerner, author of The War On Moms: On Life in a Family Unfriendly Nation, wrote an eyebrow-raising article in a recent issue of American Prospect, on multilevel marketing schemes and how women have been taken in and lost thousands of dollars. “For every legitimate work-from-home job advertised on the Web, there are some 57 scams…” she writes. Mothers desperate for ecnomic stability and flexible work are prime victims.

There’s no doubt that this situation is the direct result of a public policy failure to align the 21st century workplace with the 21st century workforce. Child care, especially good child care, is hard to find, and when found, invariably expensive. If a mother has even two young children, what she earns can be far too close to what it costs to pay for child care alone. Lacking an accessible, affordable early education/child care policy, the US offers little in the way of flexible and/or part-time work with proportionate pay and benefits. It isn’t going too far to say that our national approach (or really, lack of one) creates a huge pool of willing customers for these direct sales marketers. In fact, 88% of people in direct sales are female. The number turning a profit is negligible, less than 1% by some estimates. Ironically, mothers pursuing economic stability in this manner will likely find themselves worse off than ever.

We can continue to think that really, women aren’t discriminated against in this country, and there is equal opportunity to all, male and female, parent and non-parent. After all, it’s just the way things are. Or we can take a cold hard look at the situation, inform ourselves, and connect the dots. The space between cause and effect gets shorter and shorter, especially where mothers’ economic independence and public policy run into each other. The situation we find ourselves in is no accident. Nor is it inevitable. But it most certainly will continue until we say, “Enough”.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington