Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Report From The Front Lines - Involuntary Part-Time

There is a recent article on Canadian unemployment in the Canadian paper Globe and Mail, titled, “Why The Real Picture May Be Worse.” (Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall.) One of the article's major points is that those who keep government statistics on unemployment in Canada are defining their terms so narrowly that they skip counting significant numbers of people who have been impacted by the loss of jobs arising from the current depression – er, I mean, “recession.”

The Canadian government applies more than one definition of “employment” when measuring the labor market. The narrowest definition of unemployment, known as R1, is used to generate the official unemployment rate, which now stands at 8 percent. But there is a broader measure, known as R8, which takes into account many groups of people not counted according to R1. R8 includes those who are underemployed, those who have given up on looking for work, those who have been placed on involuntary furlough by their employers and who are waiting to be called back, and those whose hours have been reduced without their consent, and who are thus “involuntary part-timers.” While the R1 rate has been pegged at 8 percent, the R8 measure now stands at 12.4 percent. According to Benjamin Tal, economist at CIBC World Markets, “Real unemployment is rising much faster than the official rate.” Involuntary part-time employment is one of the fast-growing sectors of the underemployment measured by the Canadian R8 statistic, and those placed on involuntary part-time schedules may find that they have trouble collecting unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs altogether.

There was one very interesting quote from the article. Mr. Philip Cross, chief economist at Statscan, stated that the growth of involuntary part-time work in Canada pales in comparison to the United States. According to Mr. Cross, “Full-time work is disappearing extremely fast in the United States.”

That statement matches what I've been seeing with my own eyes lately. Whereas the MAX line and the buses were full of commuters several months ago, there are days now when they are quite sparsely populated. Some familiar commuter faces are showing up very infrequently now. On the way home, the bus has been almost empty a couple of times this week. At my office, there are several people who are just taking one day at a time – as long as they have work and a billable charge number, they show up. When the work runs out, they go home, not wanting to be caught without work by the “grim reaper.”

Several coworkers have been placed on involuntary leave, including my coworker friend with whom I hosted our first brown bag lunch discussion on neighborhood resilience. He let me know on Monday that he was asked to stay home until work in his department picked up. As he told me about it, he talked of taking some time off to re-connect with life. I should have been a better listener; instead, I was full of talk of economic collapse and suggestions for what to do.

On the MAX a few weeks ago I ran into another co-worker who had been farmed out from our office to provide site support engineering services at a client facility. He informed me that the client firm is closing that particular facility fairly soon, due to the economic situation. On a morning bus ride that same week, a lady acquaintance announced to several of us that that week would be her last on the bus. She worked at a bookstore, and they had cut her back to only ten hours per week, so she could no longer afford to work for them.

The wryest workplace moment came for me during that same week, when another co-worker went to the supply room to get some “white-out.” When she couldn't find any, she was told to look in the desks of the people who have been furloughed. (We're trying hard to cut costs.) Four of us sit next to each other, including this lady, and sometimes we joke about being Bolsheviks.

All these things have taken place against a backdrop of a steadily rising stock market and talk of the beginnings of a “recovery” by the media's talking heads. Yet they haven't noticed that as the economy seemingly begins its exertions again, the price of oil is also rising – like a fever in a sick man as he rises from bed and begins to exert himself, before he has fully recovered. I wonder how long it will be before resource scarcities and price spikes knock our economy back onto its sickbed? I'm thinking it may be only a matter of months. The media talks of recovery. Is that because in April, we “only” lost around 491,000 jobs, as opposed to seven or eight hundred thousand? Anyway, gas is now over $2.61 a gallon for premium at some area stations.

As for me, I still have work – at least for the next month or two. In my backyard, the snow peas and fava beans are doing quite well. The corn is starting to come up, the oats seem established, and even the carrots and potatoes are starting to sprout. I can also see the beginnings of sunflower plants. It's good to enjoy good things while they last.

1 comment:

gaiasdaughter said...

THinSoc, you might be interested in John Williams' shadow statistics, and his take on unemployment in the US: