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Workers put in more hours just to keep up

By NATHALIE LAGERFELD, United Press International

WASHINGTON, July 20 (UPI) -- U.S. families work more hours today to make ends meet, according to a joint report by the Economic Policy Institute and the New America Foundation, which is to be released next week.

The report, "Running Faster to Stay In Place: The Growth of Family Work Hours and Incomes," says that stagnant wages and an outdated social-safety net mean that increasing work hours is the only way for people to improve their living standards.

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"Families are working longer for less," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at EPI, during a related discussion at NAF last week. Bernstein co-authored the report with NAF Work and Family Program Director Karen Kornbluh. Both EPI and NAF are non-partisan think tanks based in Washington, D.C.

Wives in the bottom two quintiles of income worked 60 to 70 percent more hours in 2000 compared to 1979, while wives in the middle quintile increased their hours by half, according to the report. Without that increase, median-income families would have seen their incomes increase only 5 percent in that period, instead of the actual 24- percent increase.

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"What's moving families ahead is more wives working more hours," Bernstein said.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development Employment Outlook, hours of work per capita is higher in America than in Western Europe, the British Commonwealth, and Japan.

The longer-hours trend is not confined to the United States, however. Workers at a Robert Bosch auto-parts plant in Vénissieux, France agreed Monday to increase their workweek to 36 hours from the 35 hours set by French law.

The arrangement will significantly cut labor costs and save almost 200 jobs at the plant, and some hail it as a much-needed increase in flexibility in Europe's overly rigid labor market.

If the deal had not gone through, Stuttgart, Germany-based Bosch would have invested in a new production line in the Czech Republic, where labor costs are lower, rather than at the French plant.

Kornbluh said that international competition between employers, and by extension, workers, can give rise to longer hours and other demands on working families. "In the workplace, the 'company man' has been replaced by the 'global free agent' competing with workers around the world for wages and benefits," she said in a statement.

These benefits include paid vacations and sick days, both very important for families with children, Kornbluh said. "The good jobs tend to be full-time plus ... long hours and inflexible," Kornbluh told United Press International. "While there are a lot of benefits for women in the workforce, if they don't have sick leave, if they can't stay home for a snow day, it can cause hardship for their family."

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Kornbluh said fifty-four percent of wage and salaried workers with children have no time off to care for sick children without losing pay. Forty-three percent have no control over when they begin or end working.

While one parent stayed at home full time in 70 percent of families in 1960, today both parents work in 70 percent of families, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Longer hours are very difficult for American families to deal with, especially with more mothers working, said Kornbluh. "The big point is that there is a structural gap," she told UPI. "We don't have the support services, like child care and after school."

Childcare can cost a family $4,000 to $10,000 a year, said Kornbluh. In 1999, 3.3 million children aged 6 to 12 were in "latchkey care," looking after themselves while parents were at work.

But Gary Burtless, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said that although families are working more, they aren't necessarily being forced into the arrangement.

"Women going to work has not simply been a strategy to deal with the declining wages of men," Burtless told UPI. "If you look at the families that have fared pretty well over the last two decades, those women have been joining the workforce too, and have been making the transition from part-time to more full-time work."

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Burtless also pointed out that families today generally have fewer children to support than in 1979. "If you adjust for how far the family earned income has to go, there aren't quite so many mouths that need to be fed, as many bedrooms to be furnished -- that does lessen the burden on households by somewhat."

But Kornbluh said that policy reform, including health care reform, more after-school care, and more flexible work schedules is necessary for families to keep up in the changing economy.

"What's counterintuitive about this data is we think of people working harder to get ahead faster," she told UPI. "This data shows that people have to work harder just to stay in place."

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