WASHINGTON -- Economists have found plenty of encouraging signs in Friday's jobs report, in which the unemployment rate dropped from 8.1 to 7.8 percent, but they aren't celebrating the number of American workers who are still stuck with part-time hours.
The number of workers classified as "part time for economic reasons" -- that is, not by choice -- rose last month by nearly 500,000, to a total of 8.6 million when seasonally adjusted, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Such a month-to-month fluctuation should be kept in perspective given the relatively small sample size, but the stubbornly high number of unwilling part-timers underscores one lingering problem of the economic recovery: even though they're better off than the jobless, too many of the employed aren't as employed as they'd like to be.
"In this otherwise quite rosy household survey, this is an extremely elevated number," Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said of the part-timers. "A lot of people, if they found work, they're not getting the hours that they need."
The jobs added each month notwithstanding, the level of underemployment in the U.S. job market has held steady since 2009, when the recession officially ended. As GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign loves to remind voters, the jobs data is more troubling when we include the number of underemployed workers with the unemployed, for a total of 23 million Americans who are, as Romney noted Friday in his predictably dour assessment of the jobs report, "struggling for work."
For 2.6 million of the involuntary part-time workers last month, part-time employment was all they could find, while 5.5 million find themselves part-time due to "slack work or business conditions," according to the data. The Labor Department, it should be noted, doesn't keep data on what some consider another component of underemployment -- workers who are employed in jobs beneath their training, like an engineer doing retail work.
In many cases, workers who weren't laid off saw their hours cut as business fell off during the recession and sluggish recovery. In some other cases, cautious businesses that were hiring may have brought on flexible part-timers rather than go to the trouble of investing in full-time employees. Underemployment has been a problem particularly in lower-wage sectors that by tradition rely on part-time workers, such as retail and restaurants, which have actually fared better than many other industries in recent years.
In addition to having less money coming in, workers stuck at part-time typically don't enjoy benefits like health insurance, vacation time and sick leave. Floyd Kelly had been working part-time for two years at a Sam's Club in Washington state when he told HuffPost last year that "if you give up full-time, you might never get it back" in this economy. Kelly's income was two-thirds of what it used to be.
Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers, told HuffPost that the data on part-time workers also points to a longer-term problem with job quality in the economy. According to a recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the share of Americans with "good" jobs fell from 27.4 percent in 1979 to 24.6 in 2010.
"One, there's not enough jobs," Owens said. "Two, the jobs we have aren’t good enough jobs. I would say that the uptick in involuntary part-time employment is one more indicator that we have a job-quality issue that we need to address."