Hustled on the Side

In my previous writing life I was a reporter and one of my areas of focus was the economy and the job market. Now there are a lot of ways you can approach that subject, but since I was writing for the Connecticut Post and a couple other papers, I liked to remember that I was ultimately writing for the “beer-drinking, hoagie eaters,” or people like me.

So I always tried to keep that perspective and try to understand what the Labor Department stats meant to me and my readers.

One stat I didn’t pay attention to enough was table A-16 the multiple-job holders report that can be found in the monthly employment report. It’s coupled with the stats on people not in the labor force either by choice or because they have become discouraged workers.

Discouraged workers are people who want and probably need a job, but have become so discouraged by the lack of employment opportunities they just quit looking and thus are no longer counted as unemployed or in the work force. (The workforce excludes not only discouraged workers, but the retired and those not eligible to work, you know, like kids.)

Anyway, just below the discouraged workers in the monthly report are statistics on people who actually have more than one job. I’ve known a lot of middle class people who do this, work more than one job. It’s not uncommon in Connecticut, where I worked, to see a single household with two adults working two-full time jobs and two part-time jobs.

But I think the multiple jobs holders are really telling the story of this American economy.

According to February’s report, 4.4 percent of those employed worked more than one job in America in January of 2021. That’s about 6.5 million people and that’s down from where it’s been in recent years. In 2020 in January, right before the pandemic, 8 million people were working more than one job in this country, the wealthiest in the world.

Looking back at statistics from 2011 through January of 2021, the number of people working more than one job has ranged from a low of 5.3 million in the middle months of 2020 to a high of 8.35 million in October of 2019. And while, as you might expect, the number of people working two jobs does tend to rise a bit during the holiday months, overall, the people working two jobs group have accounted for 4 to 5.3 percent of the employed over the last decade.

As I look at these figures a few thoughts come to mind. One, it’s further evidence that worker pay has not kept up with the times and that Americans have done what they have always done when their pay isn’t keeping up, they’ve gone out and worked harder as households to try to keep up.

This is borne out by statistics of dual income households, a subject I’ve written about and studied. What happened in the 1970s and 1980s as worker pay began to lag executive pay was that both parents joined the workforce in increasing numbers, which allowed more families to remain in the middle class even as prices for health care, transportation, housing and higher education increased. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a lot of information on this trend and here’s a link to a report on dual income households in today’s economy.

Of course, there comes a point where dual incomes can only preserve households for so long and when people started running out of cushion from having two people work, they turned to credit to augment their incomes. The constant balance of revolving credit has become the norm in this country, when, at one time it was used for emergency purchases only and then, people would pay the balance off immediately. You can see the climbing piles of debt by American households in the regular Federal Reserve reports on consumer debt, but here’s a great piece out of the New York Fed on trends in debt.

So that brings me to multiple job holders, the latest move by American households to preserve the middle class. I think it’s clear from the statistics and from the number of financial advice books out there that pretty soon it’s going to be the standard for households other than the wealthy to be working more jobs than there are adults in them. At my current job in a grocery store, I’ve been seeing more and more people come through on the night crew who also worked jobs in the day and many more of them are working two full time jobs.

There are lots of reasons why people work two jobs. The first that springs to mind is the holiday season part-time and extra jobs some people pick up to help cover the costs of having a good Christmas. But there are other reasons. Some of the younger workers who witnessed the collapse of 2008 and the trouble their parents had are trying to build up some savings so they can pursue some other passion or live free of debt. Some are doing it because a spouse had their hours cut or lost a job, so they have to work another one. There’s also the single moms who aren’t getting the support they need so they take a couple jobs, often with one of them being worked just to cover the costs of daycare for their kids. I’ve known people who work a job they love, but it doesn’t provide health insurance, so they have to find a job where they can get that. That usually requires working at least 24 to 32 hours a week to qualify for coverage, so those hours are on top of the hours they’re putting in on the gig they love.

And still there are other who are working multiple jobs because they have to support not only their immediate family’s bills, but are also supporting other relatives.

So what does this tell me about the state of our economy and society. We’re getting hustled to hustle. See advice books and the other well-meaning people that tell you to go out and work two jobs are feeding a business culture that rewards very few of us. It is instead perpetuating a system where the very rich get to keep building fortunes as the masses wages continue to stagnate. This seems strange right?

I mean if you look at it, job growth has been fairly robust as has corporate profits for decades despite the dips form recessions. Yet, according to inflation adjusted wages of most workers, pay between 1964 and 2018 rose $2.38, or about 12 percent in 54 years. Even in the most recent economic expansion, when national unemployment dipped bellow 4 percent, wage growth was not extraordinary.

Well, one reason might be in table A-16. The number of people working two full-time jobs went from a low of 182,000 to a high of 416,000 in the last decade. And the last time the number of people working two full time jobs dipped below 225,000 was back in April of 2015. So think about that, employers not only have the unemployed to choose from to fill jobs, but also the already employed. That actually increases the labor pool, which can work against those trying to get a better wage. Look, it’s not in every job, some jobs require a certain amount of skills and education that will of course limit the pool and provide bargaining power for the employee. But for the retail positions and many other jobs that, woah, we found our are actually essential to our communities, the employment pool is pretty big.

The implications of this are fairly clear, there’s no reason for major employers to raise wages for most people when so many are willing to work multiple lower-paying jobs. That of course does not bode well for those pushing to raise the federal minimum wage up. And this also doesn’t bode well for any changes to our expensive-insurance driven health care payment system. Imagine if you freed people from having to work where the main incentive was health care insurance coverage? What would that do to wages at those places?

Anyway, this all came about because I’m doing some research for a book I’m writing, so I thought I’d put this out there.

Thanks for reading.

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