Political Animal


May 13, 2012 7:57 AM Job Sharing as a Partial Remedy for Unemployment

By Kathleen Geier

The must-read op-ed in today’s morning papers is this piece in the New York Times, on “The Human Disaster of Unemployment.” Interestingly, it’s co-authored by two economists who normally do not agree on very much: Dean Baker, from the left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Kevin Hassett, from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. They call attention to the growing problem of long-term unemployment, which they characterize as “nothing short of a national emergency,” and they usefully summarize some of the grim consequences of unemployment, such as dramatically higher mortality rates for the unemployed; higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and psychiatric illnesses; higher divorce rates; and lower earnings for the children of unemployed workers.

They advocate for a variety of government interventions to deal with the unemployment program, but the one that intrigues me the most is the idea of job-sharing:

The recent bill that extended the payroll tax cut included a provision that covered the cost of work-sharing programs in the 23 states that already had them as part of their unemployment insurance systems, and it helped other states start such programs. This should slow job destruction in those states, which will improve chances for all workers seeking employment. From now on, the first line of defense during a recession should be to expand work sharing rather than simply extend unemployment benefits.

Given the huge psychic and economic traumas caused by unemployment; given the fact that the unemployed worker’s skills tend to erode dramatically during periods of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment; and given the fact that the longer a worker is unemployed, the more remote are the chances that she will ever find a job again, it makes a lot of sense that we as a society do all we can to help workers stay on the job. During economic downturns, job sharing shows much promise as a way to do this. Anything the government can do to promote job sharing and eliminate barriers to implementing job sharing on a mass scale should be strongly encouraged.

Job sharing also makes a lot of sense for another reason. As Alternet’s Sara Robinson recently pointed out in this excellent piece, a strong body of research suggests that “shorter work hours actually raise productivity and profits — and overtime destroys them.” Job-sharing would entail shorter work weeks which, as Robinson demonstrates, would likely be more economically efficient. Job sharing could be a powerful tool not only for dealing with our severe long-term unemployment problem, but also for reforming dysfunctional workplace cultures that demand long hours from employees, even when those long hours have few if any demonstrated benefits.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • DAY on May 13, 2012 9:11 AM:

    " Anything the government can do to promote job sharing and eliminate barriers to implementing job sharing "

    That alone makes the idea a non-starter. (For evidence, ask any Democratic member of the House!)

    True, that a shorter work week raises productivity, and overtime reduces same- but the reason for overtime is cost saving. It is cheaper to pay a single worker for 80 hours than two for 40. Until "The Government" steps in and changes the work rules and tax laws and corporate greed, job sharing will die on the editorial pages of the "LIberal Media".

    Unions brought us the 5 day/40 hour week, worker safety, and a whole lot more. And now they are on life support.

  • Milt on May 13, 2012 9:12 AM:

    This makes far too much sense to be adopted. The mega-corporations will say 1) it will increase the health insurance costs thereby making it unprofitable, 2) the cost of training makes it unprofitable, 3) the increased difficulty of scheduling makes it unprofitable.

  • Danp on May 13, 2012 9:15 AM:

    More part time employees equals more people without health insurance, 401K contributions, etc. While it may be good in the short term, it seems to me that it is a strategy that businesses have been adopting for the last decade or so, along with hiring through temp agencies. Can't say I love the solution.

  • martin on May 13, 2012 9:24 AM:

    Too French;>

  • c u n d gulag on May 13, 2012 9:26 AM:

    In a better world, and a more sane country, one that had a a nationalized health care system, let's say, this would be possible - and maybe even preferable.

    But right now, our "Job Creators(all kneel... let us pray... all rise!)" will need to pay for some of the health insurance, and our conservatives want to rid us of any last vestige of government, except defense, so this is a non-starter here.

    I've been out of work now for over 2 years, with no, none, zero, ZILCH, offers - let alone prospects.

    My retirement plan is to commit a crime big and bad enough that I can spend my dotage in prison.

  • esaud on May 13, 2012 9:42 AM:

    Work sharing requires the cooperation of large corporations, who currently are enjoying high unemployment and the "enhanced productivity" (i.e. squeezing every last penny out of workers who have no place to go and are scared to death of being laid off) it brings. Who wants to bring back the old days when workers could quit if they were dissatisfied? Having the work force over a barrel is so much better.

    Other options: Reduce social security retirement age to 62 with full benefits; decrease Medicare eligibility age to 60, or lower if unemployed for a year or more; rehiring teachers and other public jobs that were let go; pass card check - we need more union workers to shore up the bottom before the middle class slides into oblivion.

  • Thaumaturgist on May 13, 2012 9:52 AM:

    The importance of work-sharing is that it depresses wages and, as others have noted, disqualifies employees from fringe benefits, thereby promoting productivity. Almost as good as hiring illegals.

  • Pen on May 13, 2012 9:54 AM:

    Ah yes, job sharing: The wonderful ability for large corporations to turn reliable full time positions with stagnant wages into multiple benefit-less part time positions for even less.

    Until our voting population realizes that employer-based health insurance is a means of indentured servitude this'll never fly.

  • Michael Carpet on May 13, 2012 11:12 AM:

    During the Great Depression, my grandfather asked the employees of his furniture business if they would all reduce their hours so he could avoid laying off anyone. IIRC, everyone worked about 75-80% time. I have always thought this would be the best path to take if the need for layoffs came to my firm.

  • Patango on May 13, 2012 11:14 AM:

    I can see the point as far as helping people keep their training and minds up top date , but we all know how big business can exploit a labor loop hole , which is were these ideas always begin at, when it comes to big business

    It is interesting to see the right winger in the op express unemployment as AN EMERGENCY , which it really is , but then look at their policies surround the emergency , cut funding for unemployment , job training programs , job creation programs , tuition assistants , the safety net etc , give us all a break please , our t bagger gov in iowa even tried to gut the budget for unemployment agencies , these are not people who I would look to for advice on the subject

  • schtick on May 13, 2012 11:53 AM:

    Oh the ways they try to get out of paying overtime are many. Best one is to put you on salary. The other one is telling you that overtime is voluntary and they expect you to put some overtime in, but if you don't it reflects in your job performance and your pay. And the part time slides under the radar for offering benefits.
    We need unions to get back to fair wages and safety, not saving a paycheck for no show employees.

  • Doug on May 13, 2012 9:15 PM:

    Not a bad idea per se, but it'll never be adopted. In order for two people two make a living wage from what is now one position would mean that the wages for that job would HAVE to double. Which would decrease profits.
    It would make more sense to raise the minimum wage to something more akin to what it should be. Today's $7.25 per hour hasn't even kept up with inflation and should be closer to $10-11 per hour.
    Those working minimum wage, or near-minimum wage, jobs would immediately put all, or most, of any raise right back into the economy as they increase their standard of living.

  • Jimo on May 14, 2012 12:45 AM:

    The Germans already do this.

    It keeps workers attached to a center for their lives and keeps their skills up to date.

  • Crissa on May 14, 2012 2:00 PM:

    I don't see how it'll help. While some businesses overwork their known, solid workers... Many minimum-wage large businesses (like Walmart) work hard to notemploy people full-time.

    And working part time at these places helps your resume very little. At least it shows you're employable... But you won't be making enough to pay for your food and shelter, and you won't be building skills, and you will be using up time you'd otherwise use to look for work.

  • Re: Crissa on May 18, 2012 11:15 AM:

    Crissa, while some people with very little job skills work minimum wage jobs, the vast majority of people earn much more than minimum wage. You wouldn't have to work part time at Wal Mart. Perhaps you could work part time in an office or as an engineer at a plant, among other jobs. Most businesses would make more money if they increased productivity, thus giving them an incentive to increase productivity.