Working for Legumes

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The short-term interests of the financial elite override the long-term interests of society as a whole (the rest of us). Their goal is to keep stock prices and profits soaring by whatever means possible. Currently they are shaking in their boots because they can hear the bear growling off in the woods.

Workers at a counter in a cafe; photo by Afta Putta Gunawan.
Workers at a counter in a cafe; photo by Afta Putta Gunawan.

Stocks have had a remarkable run over the last few years. The problem with the market is that it is an indicator of the well-being of only a fraction of us. Stocks are up, unemployment is down. But is it? Too many who are counted in the high employment numbers are actually working part-time and wanting full-time. Some of us shoot across town to our second job, which also doesn’t offer benefits, and struggle to pay for health insurance that would be available if employers would give us the hours necessary to qualify. Or we don’t and cross our fingers.

If you have to think about what day it is when you head off to work (If it’s Tuesday, it must be Dunkin), then you know what I’m talking about. And no one can survive on the wages paid to the people who fill these jobs. Capitalism at its finest. Big profits, struggling workers.

Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Current Population Survey (CPS) contacts 60,000 households across the country and notes the employment status of each person 16 years old or older. They contact the same families each time except for 25% that they replace with new families. So the official numbers are based on what people choose to report, not exactly rocket science. The data is then used to calculate six measures of the unemployment rate, from U-1 to U-6.

A person is considered unemployed if he has looked for work in the last four weeks. If he has not, he is not considered to be unemployed and is not included in the labor force. Considering that you might be considered a slacker if you responded that you had been sitting around watching the tube for a month, it would be tempting to report that you had been out there knocking on doors. If a person reports that he worked 1 hour in a week, he is considered employed. See what I mean about not being rocket science? This is the commonly used number that is reported by the media, the one and only one you hear about. It is the U-3.

The U-4 unemployment rate adds a category of people known as discouraged workers, people who wish to work and have looked for a job in the last 12 months, but not in the last 4 weeks because, you know, they are discouraged. The U-5 unemployment rate includes everyone in the U-4 rate, plus people who are available to work, willing to work and not discouraged from looking for work, but who have not looked for work in the prior 4 weeks for some other reason.

The U-6 unemployment rate is the most accurate because it includes discouraged workers, underemployed workers and other folks who are marginally attached to the workforce. It takes into account all those part-time workers who would like a full-time job. The U-6 number is typically double the U-3 number.

You can compare current numbers at the BLS website.

The "gig economy" is driven by the availability of generally unpredictable, freelance opportunities, such as dog walking an errand running, that are cobbled together by retirees, students, and workers unable to secure stable full-time positions.
The “gig economy” is made up of generally unpredictable, freelance opportunities, such as dog walking and errand running, that are cobbled together by retirees, students, and workers unable to secure stable full-time positions.

Certain people are excluded from the labor force and so their status does not figure into the unemployment figures. The Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) conducted at the beginning of each year asks why unemployed people did not work during the previous year. They are excluded from the workforce if they were students, retired, disabled or ill, unable to find work, had home responsibilities and for other reasons. This will certainly skew the unemployment number when people in this category find the need to work but can’t find employment.

If you are a fan of bar charts, you might enjoy this explanation from the BLS: “People who are not in the labor force: why aren’t they working?

The companies making the big profits are currently complaining that they can’t find enough workers. The truth is that most of the jobs out there are part-time, temporary or contractual. And if all these part-time workers are considered employed, it makes the unemployment rate look real good. But it makes the workers feel real bad. If you receive no benefits, no sick time and no vacation, let alone personal leave or a retirement set-aside, what incentive do you have to bust your ass for a company/institution. You don’t. You show up and do the minimum, hoping you have enough energy to go to your second-shift gig. And remember what day of the week it is.

What say you?

Sheila Velazquez is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines. Her awards include two from the Society of Professional Journalists for a syndicated column. Feel free to e-mail her at sheila@greylockglass.com.

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