Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Contingent Lives: The Economic Insecurity of Contingent Workers

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Contingent Lives: The Economic Insecurity of Contingent Workers

Article excerpt

In the paper he contributes to this symposium,(1) Dr. Richard Belous once again provides his readers with some of the best data available on the state of the contingent work force.(2) While dismissing the media projection that one worker in two will soon be a contingent employee,(3) Dr. Belous cautions that the numbers are large.(4) At least one in four employed Americans -- and perhaps closer to one in three -- is already a member of the contingent work force.(5) And while the period of most dramatic growth may have passed, the ranks of contingent workers are expected to increase, if more slowly, in the years to come.(6)

Dr. Belous also outlines the benefits and the costs of contingent employment.(7) Weighing both, he concludes that contingent employment is a valuable response to international competition and is here to stay.(8) The challenge, Dr. Belous suggests, is not to eradicate contingent employment, but to redress its deficiencies, especially its impact on workers' access to social welfare benefits.(9) On this point I agree completely with Dr. Belous; indeed, I would state the case more pointedly. Contingent work radically alters the basic structures of employment and, in doing so, reveals what has long been invisible: That in America, access to crucial social benefits is linked not simply to the work force, but to assumptions about work that contingent employment defies.

I. The Contraction of Work-Based Benefits

A. Health Insurance

During the last decade, the work-based portion of our social welfare system has contracted severely.(10) By 1993 (the latest year for which data are available), the number of Americans without health insurance of any kind, public or private, had reached forty-one million.(11) This represents 18% of the nonelderly population,(12) and it reflects an ever widening gap. As recently as 1989, the number of uninsured Americans was below thirty-five million, or 16% of the nonelderly population.(13)

Obviously, not every uninsured American is a contingent worker, but there are data -- including some that Dr. Belous cites(14) -- that strongly suggest that contingent work plays an important role in creating and maintaining the health coverage gap. A recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) describes the uninsured population in terms characteristic of contingent workers.(15) The study notes that many of the uninsured are "not consistently employed by the same employer."(16) They "may have a weaker (or temporary) attachment to the work force, and have less disposable income to allocate to the purchase of health insurance."(17) According to the report, firms that do not provide health insurance "employ many part-time workers and experience rapid turnover."(18)

The study also documents the shrinking portion of the population with private, employer-provided health coverage. In 1988, 66.8% of Americans under age sixty-five had employer-provided health coverage.(19) By 1993, that number had fallen to 60.8%.(20)

An earlier EBRI study focused on workers who failed to participate in their employers' health plans.(21) Not surprisingly, some of these workers were covered by a spouse's or parent's plan.(22) Others could not afford the employee contribution required for coverage.(23) But fully 36% mostly part-time, contract, or temporary workers -- did not participate in their employer's plan because they were ineligible.(24)

Finally, an uninsured worker has no coverage to offer her or his dependents. Although these dependents may not be contingent workers themselves, their plight is directly linked to that of the contingent employee. Perhaps the most depressing statistic in EBRI's report is this: The fastest growing segment of the uninsured population is children. In 1992, America boasted 10.2 million uninsured children.(25) By 1993, the number was 11.1 million.(26)

B. Pension Coverage

Unfortunately, health insurance is not the only incredible shrinking benefit. …

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