One of the lines the Republicans often used to attack Obamacare was complaining that it would lead to a massive switch to part-time work. The argument was that employers would cut all their workers to less than 30 hours a week. This would exempt them from the employer mandates in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The line “part-time nation” was a regular refrain on Fox News and other conservative news outlets.
It didn’t turn out that way. The share of workers who are employed part-time is virtually the same today as it was when the ACA was fully implemented at the start of 2014. It turns out that covered employers, those with more than 50 workers, have more important issues to consider in scheduling their workforce than avoiding the ACA requirements. Of course, since more than 90 percent of these employers already provided health care for their workers, it is not surprising that they didn’t change their behavior.
However the aggregate numbers on part-time work conceals an important shift that has largely gone unnoticed. While total part-time employment has changed little over the three years the ACA has been in effect, there has been a huge shift from involuntary part-time work to voluntary part-time work.
The number of people who report that they are working part-time involuntarily — they could not find full-time jobs — has fallen by 2.2 million since December of 2013, the last month before the ACA took full effect. By contrast, the number of people who report that they are working part-time because they have chosen to work part-time has risen by more than 2.4 million. Both parts of this picture are good news and almost certainly are attributable to the ACA.
The reason the ACA increased voluntary part-time employment is that the exchanges allowed people to get insurance without having to rely on an employer. Typically employers require people to work full-time in order to get health care insurance.
As a result, many people who would rather work part-time jobs, such as parents of young children and older workers nearing Medicare age, were forced to work full-time jobs to get health care insurance. This was especially likely if they or someone in their family had a serious medical condition that would make insurance very expensive or unobtainable.
In an analysis done the first year after the exchanges were in operation, Cherrie Bucknor and I found that voluntary part-time employment was up by more than 8 percent among young mothers. A separate analysis found that voluntary part-time employment was up by almost 5 percent in 2014 for the workers between the ages of 55-64 who are still too young to qualify for Medicare.
This is one of the major unsung successes of Obamacare. Millions of people who wanted to work part-time jobs so they could spend more time with young children now have the option to do so. Similarly, many older workers, some who are in bad health, now have the ability to cut back their hours and still get affordable health care insurance.
The flip side of the movement to voluntary part-time employment was also good news. The decision by millions of people to voluntarily leave full-time jobs to take part-time work opened up these jobs for people seeking full-time employment. Since the ACA, the rise in voluntary part-time employment closely mirrors the decline in involuntary part-time employment. People who needed full-time jobs were now much more likely to get them.
We can expect this story to go in reverse with the Republicans’ repeal of Obamacare. Young parents and older people in bad health who would prefer to work part-time will again be forced to get full-time jobs so that they can get insurance through their employer. When these workers take full-time jobs, it will displace workers who want and need full-time employment. There may be little net change in part-time employment under the Republican plan, but fewer of the people who will be working part-time will be people who actually want part-time employment.
Extending health care insurance to 20 million people was a really big deal and an important driver for the ACA. Arguably an even bigger deal was providing security to people who already had insurance. The surge in voluntary part-time employment was evidence of this security, as was a 6 percent jump in the number of people who are self-employed. But providing security to the nation’s workers is obviously not the Trump-Ryan agenda.