Monday, November 14, 2016


Parents and Payrolls

You know what would be perfect for many parents?  Part-time jobs that offer benefits.

You know what employers avoid like the plague?  Part-time jobs that offer benefits.

The cost of providing benefits is climbing much more quickly than salaries are.  That means that employers, as a group, are disinclined to offer benefits to any more people than they have to.  And to get as much as humanly possible out of the ones who do.

For families, then, the incentive is to have one person who works (more than) full-time, in order to cover benefits.  The other can work part-time, assuming that the benefits can cover both adults and the kids.  

For single parents, the dilemma is especially cruel.  If you’re working (more than) full-time, childcare is a serious issue.  That’s especially true in school districts that give out half-days and random vacation days like candy.  And that’s without even mentioning summer vacations.

I’m just old enough to remember when the discussion of women in the workforce revolved around ways that jobs would have to change to accommodate families.  Instead, families have adapted to jobs.  

It’s no one person’s fault, exactly.  The economic logic behind amortizing benefits over the most work per employee is impeccable, especially as benefits gets more expensive.  That’s precisely what makes it so hard to change.  

Shaming employers for doing what they need to do is missing the point.  If you want sustainable and large-scale behavioral change, change the incentives.  That has to happen at a policy level.

I’m offering this up for two reasons.  One is that I was in a conversation recently in which the prospect of part-time benefitted positions was swatted down as if it were the most ridiculous idea ever.  The other is that the president-elect seems to be willing to consider unorthodox ideas.  

If benefits -- health insurance, most basically -- were decoupled from employment, then employers could offer a much wider range of arrangements.  Job sharing, 30-hour weeks, and proportional part-time could suddenly be on the table.  Parents could choose schedules that didn’t require them either to be superheroes or to be Ward and June.  

Paid parental leave is great, but necessarily limited.  There’s no reasonable way for that to cover 18 years per kid.  But decoupling benefits from employment could make it possible for people to find a sustainable pace over the long term.  Parents who aren’t frazzled can be better caregivers and life partners.  Kids whose parents aren’t just there, but actually present, stand to benefit.  If we’re serious about family values, this should be a no-brainer.

The core idea isn’t new.  There was a time before “weekends” as we know them; part of the point of weekends was to make it possible to have both a job and a life.  Now, life without weekends sounds awful.  We could do the same with work hours, if we were willing to get at the root of the problem.

Or, we can go on overworking some and underpaying others.  How’s that working out?  As long as we’re breaking with orthodoxy anyway, let’s do something productive.  Parents and kids everywhere will thank us.

I've flirted with the policy idea that part-time employers could be required to pay into some "benefits account" for their workers on a proportional basis so that people holding down multiple part-time jobs to make a full-time one would have enough in that account that it worked out for them to buy health insurance on the exchanges with a similar amount of employer contribution as the full time employees get.

Mostly, if we made it so that the cost of a part time employee gracefully scaled with the hours worked rather than spiking at the magical "full time" threshold, that would make being a part time employee less comparatively terrible for workers and less comparatively beneficial for employers, so we'd find a different set place based more on the actual scheduling needs of both employers and workers rather than on trying to game a larger system. We can try to get there by increasing proportional benefits to part time workers or by removing them from full time workers, and I obviously have a preference there as well, but not the one that's likely to happen in the current political climate.
Instead of forcing part-timers onto the exchange, make it possible for part-time employees to pay the difference on the employer contribution to the company's benefits package. This way, multi-job part-timers can choose the benefits package that best suits their needs, making "benefits" a real recruiting again.
More and more lately I'm reminded of John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider. The setting seems eerily prophetic (or maybe history is just rhyming again):

Most of the characters live with the feeling that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant because of someone breaking into the data held on the network. They also believe that the network knows more about them than they do about themselves. This is an extension of the sense of paranoia felt by many people in the 1970s, believing themselves to be powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which they had no control. — Wikipedia

The ending, especially, is poignant:


#1: "That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must."

#2: "That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know."


Well — how did you vote?

And sadly, we know how America voted…
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