Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, has introduced legislation to address what she says is the “troubling growth” of part-time workers in California. But federal and state labor data show that the number of involuntary part-time workers has been declining in recent years. If that’s the case, it is unclear why such a law is needed.
Assembly Bill 5 would be extremely difficult for employers to comply with and for regulators to enforce. Before hiring a single new worker, an employer would have to identify each of its existing employees working less than 40 hours per week and ask them whether they want more work. That would be a complex and costly process which might benefit a few part-time workers but would hurt new job seekers – a dubious tradeoff.
A big problem is that the bill ignores the critical distinction between voluntary part-time workers and the (much smaller) number who work part-time involuntarily – the only segment that should be of any concern. The bill would require employers to offer additional work to every part-time worker, even those working part-time by choice, which makes little sense from a policy standpoint.
Federal and state labor agencies define involuntary part-time workers as those who would prefer full-time employment, but are working part-time for “economic reasons” – e.g., because of unfavorable business conditions or seasonal declines in demand. Voluntary part-time workers, in contrast, work part-time for “noneconomic” reasons, such as family or personal obligations.
Involuntary part-time work fluctuates – rising during economic downturns and falling when conditions improve. The last recession saw an increase in the number of involuntary part-time workers, as you would expect during and immediately following an economic downturn. However, federal labor statistics show that, nationwide, involuntary part-time employment has been on a steady downswing since the last recession ended in 2009.
California has shown similar declines – decreasing from a high of 9.6 percent in April 2010 to the current 5.1 percent. While not yet at pre-recession levels, the economy is making progress in reducing the percentage of involuntary part-time work – without the drastic government intervention proposed by this bill.
Even if involuntary part-time work had not declined, trying to alleviate the effects of business cycles on jobs by legislating how businesses manage their workforces is fraught with potential unintended consequences. Part-time work for economic reasons involves complex factors that can’t be addressed simply by “robbing Peter to pay Paul” – which AB 5 would do by forcing employers to discriminate against new job seekers.
There’s no reason to rush ahead with legislation whose consequences are wholly unknown. In introducing her bill, Gonzalez Fletcher noted that it mirrors the requirements of a San Jose ballot measure that voters approved last November. At the very least, lawmakers should take the time to carefully assess the impact of the San Jose law before giving serious thought to statewide adoption.
Benjamin M. Ebbink, a former chief consultant to the California Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment, is of counsel with Fisher Phillips in Sacramento, where he advises employers on legislative and regulatory issues. He can be contacted at email@example.com.