Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Diversity of Contingent Workers and the Need for Nuanced Policy

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Diversity of Contingent Workers and the Need for Nuanced Policy

Article excerpt

The contingent work force is rising. Policymakers and analysts must respond. These are the central themes of Dr. Belous's paper in this symposium.(1) Twenty-five to thirty percent -- his current upper- and lower-bound estimates of the size of the contingent work force -- are the basic statistics underpinning his call to arms.(2) Dr. Belous includes in the contingent work force all workers who are temporary, part-time, self-employed, or in business services.(3) The spread comes from different methods of handling double counting. The figures update similar estimates he published in 1989 in his well-known book, The Contingent Economy.(4) Dr. Belous has done a great service in attracting attention to the problems of contingent workers. His estimates are perhaps the statistics most frequently cited by scholars writing in this area.(5) A group of workers comprising 25 to 30% of the work force is worthy of serious attention.

I. The Variety of Contingent Work

Jobs labelled contingent are extremely diverse. Policy responses must therefore be cautious and nuanced. These are the central themes of my comment.

To highlight the diversity theme, let me begin my comments on Dr. Belous's useful paper at the beginning. I will comment on a little word in his title, The Rise of the Contingent Work Force.(6) I will pass over the word "Rise," although Dr. Belous's own upper-bound estimates suggest that the contingent work force has not risen in percentage since 1988, remaining at 30% of the labor force. Even if the explosive growth is over, the contingent work force has become a major segment of the whole. I will also pass over the word "Contingent," although the negative connotation is unfortunate. While many contingent jobs are "bad" jobs, others are "good" jobs that allow a worker flexibly to combine work with school or family responsibilities. An umbrella term should be neutral on this basic point while capturing the sense that these jobs are different from "core" jobs. Professor Katharine Abraham, currently the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has proposed calling these jobs "market-mediated work arrangements."(7) For anyone other than an economist, however, "market-mediated" is not catchy enough. Unfortunately, I have no better suggestion. "Peripheral" or "disposable" have negative connotations, while "flexible" is too upbeat. Thus, I will pass over the word "contingent."

I will comment instead on the definite pronouns in the title, THE Rise of THE Contingent Work Force. The first definite pronoun suggests a single rise of contingent workers; in fact, however, some types of contingent jobs are booming while others are stable or declining. Employment with temporary-help agencies is booming, but it accounts for only a small fraction of contingent workers.(8) Part-time workers make up the bulk of contingent workers, but their fraction of the labor force has increased only modestly since 1970.(9) For women workers, the proportion who are part-time has fallen since 1970.(10)

The second definite pronoun in the title is more misleading. Labelling these workers as the contingent work force connotes an image of a single type of worker, different from a core worker. This masks the diversity among workers typically labelled contingent. They are contingent for different reasons and these reasons produce different policy concerns. Worrying about the contingent work force, I fear, gives impulse to sweeping policy recommendations when nuance and subtlety are required.

Dr. Belous includes in his basic count of the contingent work force all workers who are part-time, temporary, self-employed, or in business services.(11) This definition is sensible because these are workers about whom we can make a plausible count from national data. Other categories are sometimes brought within the contingent "family." These categories include part-year workers, on-call workers, leased workers, independent contractors, subcontractors, flex-time workers, job-sharing workers, self-employed workers, and home workers. …

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