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Income plummets for part-time workers in Washington area

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.
By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 1:00 AM

Part-time workers in the Washington region suffered some of the worst pay losses in the nation during the recession, even as full-time employees held their ground.

Median income for part-timers was down by double digits in every jurisdiction in the region between 2007 and 2009, according to a Post analysis of recently released census statistics. In some places, the drop was triple the national decline.

Median pay for women who work part time in the Washington area slipped from highest in the nation to fourth place. And men fell from the second-highest to the seventh place.

The figures from the 2009 American Community Survey offer a more intimate portrait of U.S. workers in the middle of a recession than has been available in previous downturns because the census now gathers detailed information annually instead of once every 10 years.

The recession has thrust millions of Americans who once held full-time jobs into the category of part-timers as they lost jobs, worked fewer hours or became self-employed when their employers trimmed costs. They are considered underemployed, and they do not show up in unemployment statistics because they are working, though not as much as they would like or need.

But it is not clear to what degree the part-time workers' sharp income losses result from less work, a shift into lower-paying jobs or a combination of both. People reported to the census that they were working almost as much as they were before the recession, although many probably overestimated the number of hours on the job.

Most of the country's largest metropolitan areas experienced a broad decline in wages for part-timers, especially in the construction and retail sectors, which hire a lot of workers who are not counted as full-time employees with benefits.

The figures were particularly striking in the Washington area, which was protected from many of the recession's worst effects because of the prevalence of high-skilled, professional jobs here. The region has the highest median pay in the country, and it remained flat during the recession. Some local cities and counties had declines, but not as steep as those in other parts of the country.

If the local economy's relative strength helped shield most full-time workers, it left part-timers especially vulnerable, as they are in all economic downturns.

"Because the core is so strong, you can be on the periphery of this economy and do quite well," said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "But when the economy's down and stays there, eventually there's no place to hide."

Adjusted for inflation, the median wage for part-time women in the region fell $2,700 over two years, to $13,500 - the biggest drop in the country.

Part-time male workers fared no better. Their median pay went down $4,300, to $18,400. Only men in Denver and Orlando lost more money during that period.

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