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Working Time

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Working Time"


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David Brooks made an odd argument the other day about the impossibility of serious class-based political divisions in a world where high-income people work longer hours than low-income people that prompted a righteous smackdown from Matt Taibbi. For a more analytical take, I would recommend Monica Potts:

I suspect that low-wage earners just aren’t allowed to work as much as they might want to. They’re probably the employed — not the employers — and their bosses aren’t going to let them work overtime just because they need more money. If they do work overtime, they’re probably asked to work off the clock, or just aren’t paid properly. The people I know who work at or near the minimum wage have hours that are intensely managed by their superiors just so they don’t get more money or qualify for benefits. Unless the workers are unionized, there’s little recourse. And none of that counts those who want to work but simply can’t get hired full time. I suspect that, if you dug behind those numbers a bit, there isn’t a lot of choice involved in working hours at the lowest income levels.

Particular in the current weak economic climate we have a situation whereby approximately nine million people say they’re “part-time for economic reasons”—looking for full-time work, in other words, but there aren’t full-time jobs for them.

Even in a weak economic climate, high-level professional work can’t really be done on a part-time basis. A company can go out of business, but as long as it’s in business the executives need to be working pretty long hours. The flipside of that is that the business can’t reduce its labor costs by cutting hours (and therefore salary) for its executives. But when business slows down, a firm can reduce the hours of its cashiers (or what have you) and therefore reduce expenses and also the cashiers’ income. To then look at the situation and say “well, the cashiers would have more money if they worked harder” is basically backwards—if the labor market were in better shape, people would work longer hours and get paid more on a per hour basis.

But having put a floor underneath the decline in the stock market and brought us to a situation where the unemployment rate isn’t going up anymore many elites are ready to declare victory and then, I guess, when low-skill people can’t find work they’ll get slammed as lazy.

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