Income plummets for part-time workers in Washington area

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.

In some jurisdictions, it was much worse . In Fairfax County, the median pay for part-time men dropped 28 percent. Part-time wages for men were down a staggering 32 percent in Howard County.

More than half of the 85,000 jobs in the Washington area lost during the recession were in construction and retail, both of which are dominated by part-time workers, said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

"There's been a change in the mix of the workforce," he said. "More of the higher-paid, part-time workers cut back on their hours, and many of their jobs disappeared."

Brian Wood, 39, for one, watched his financial life spiral downward just when he thought he had overcome obstacles erected by his past.

When he was released from prison in 2001 after serving 71/2 years on a manslaughter conviction related to a Prince George's shooting in 1992, he said he was hired by an overnight mail delivery service. He was promoted from driver to supervisor, and eventually to assistant manager. After that company left the District, he got a mailroom job at another firm.

He wore a white shirt and tie to work, and earned enough steady money to treat himself to occasional steak-and-martini dinners at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and the Palm restaurant.

He was laid off in 2009, then without a job for a full year. He took in a roommate to share costs and spent the year applying online for dozens of jobs.

In April, he was hired to stock shelves at a Home Depot in Maryland. He is paid $8.90 an hour. Some weeks, he logs 20 hours. Other weeks, when the sun is shining and lots of contractors come to stock up, he works a full 40 hours.

"After taxes, it doesn't look good," he said while smoking a cigarette during a break. He said he picked up smoking during the year he was laid off.

"I'm stressed out," he explained. "I never smoked at all until I was out of work."

Now, memories of steak dinners are as distant as the premium cable channels he no longer can afford. He cuts his hair himself. He alternates his spending, one week buying some underwear or a pair of sneakers for himself, the next paycheck buying clothes for his two children.

On the rare occasions when he goes out to dinner, he has saved up for it for more than a month by eliminating another expense. He accompanies his girlfriend to free events - museum exhibits and strolls among the cherry blossoms, for instance.

"When it's good, people always think it's going to last forever," he said, shaking his head as he recalled his more freespending days. "But it don't. Whoever would have thought the United States of America would have a recession like this?"

He hopes to pick up extra hours around Christmas and eventually to be hired full-time. He vows he will save more money when good times return.

In an improving economy, many companies do indeed convert part-time workers to full-time status.

That's what it looked like in the spring as business picked up at Help Unlimited Temps, a Washington-based agency that fills secretarial and administrative jobs.

"In September of this year, it was like gangbusters," said Wendy Zanarotti, the agency's associate director. "Anyone who was available was out. But three weeks ago it started quieting down big time. People look at the markers for the economy, and they're hesitant to make commitments."

Economists predict that more part-timers will find jobs around Christmas as retailers hire seasonal workers.

"They're all minimum-wage jobs, and that will pull the averages down," Fuller said. "They're not good jobs. But they're better than no job."

Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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