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'Underemployed' work fewer hours

Jody Taylor dodged the bullet twice in the past year when the industrial-coating factory where she works as a machine operator went through a series of layoffs. But her hours have been cut back to a four-day workweek.

In this economy, she considers herself lucky.

"I did lose some money, but I still have a job and health benefits," said Taylor, 51, a single parent whose 17-year-old son recently had his wisdom teeth pulled. "Honest to God, I don't know how anybody can do it without their benefits."

Taylor has joined the burgeoning ranks of the "underemployed" - the 8.9 million Americans who would prefer full-time jobs but must make do with part-time work.

Their numbers have shot up from 5.2 million a year ago, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week. The April total was down only slightly from 9 million in March, the most since record-keeping began in 1955, the agency said.

The ranks of the underemployed have swelled as tens of thousands of businesses resort to shorter workweeks, furloughs and seasonal shutdowns to avoid deeper cutbacks. Often, these involuntary part-timers get to keep at least some of their benefits.

With her two-week paycheck more than US$100 lighter, Taylor rarely eats out, relies more than ever on grocery discounts and has cut out nights at the movies. She won't be replacing her 1993 Toyota any time soon.

Somewhere else

"It can always get worse," said Taylor, a 21-year employee at Applied Coatings Inc. "At my age, to start over somewhere else would be very tough."

Billy Mendoza, 23, an Apple tech-support representative in Las Cruces, New Mexico, dropped down to a 25-hour workweek from "OT all the time" last year.

As his bills pile up, he has canceled Internet service, switched to a cheaper satellite TV package and opts for game nights with friends instead of nights out.

The worst thing about losing US$200 a week?

"Just not being able to really do anything," Mendoza said. But hardest of all is not being able to afford to travel to Kansas since January to see his one-year-old son, who lives with his former girlfriend. He is saving up for his next trip this summer.

The tourism doldrums in Las Vegas have casino bartender Will Turner scrambling to find a second job. Gone are monthly trips to see family in California and frequent dinners out with his wife, who lost her job in a collections agency, and their two children.

"I went from choosing my shifts to begging for shifts. Now, I'm lucky to get two or three," lamented Turner, 40. "We're struggling, but we're surviving, you know?"

A burgeoning array of companies big and small have tapped into a Shared Work government program offered in 18 states that enables struggling businesses to trim payroll costs but retain jobs. Employees get back a portion of their lost wages in unemployment benefits and get to keep medical benefits.

Without the program, launched in 1983, "we would have been forced to cut some of our more experienced technical people," said Steve Clark, director of operations at Applied Coatings, which makes thin-film coatings for display lights.

"I would say probably 10 layoffs were averted."

Chopped workers

Since last summer the company has chopped its workforce of about 70 in half. The 36 remaining employees, managers included, have been on a 32-hour workweek since the fall.

Economist Brian Bethune of IHS Global Insight said he expects the number of underemployed to climb, peaking at close to 10 million this summer.

But part-timers will regain full-time work more quickly than those who lost their jobs, he said. "The first thing that will happen is the part-timers will be used more intensively," Bethune said.

"You don't get actual net job creation until the economy really kicks into gear."


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