The recent unemployment statistics have been improving--dipping below 8 percent, according to the Department of Labor, for the first time in October and holding steady below that threshold ever since.
Yet, these numbers never tell the full story, and another measure of joblessness shows an unsettling trend: sporadic unemployment for millions of the nation’s workforce.
In 2011, nearly 15 percent of the workforce was unemployed at some point throughout the year—a stark contrast to the official 2011 annual unemployment rate of 8.9 percent. The difference? The over-the-year unemployment rate takes into account the fact that many workers will be unemployed one month and then reemployed the next, while the average annual unemployment rate simply averages the amount of the labor force unemployed that very month. This means that the official annual rate obscures the unsettlingly high amount of job instability in the United States—a trend that is projected to continue into 2013.
More than 13 percent of the workforce is expected to face unemployment at some point in the New Year, acording to The State of Working America, 12th Edition. This means that one in every eight workers—and their families—will be forced to cope with the financial and emotional burden of temporary unemployment this coming year.
While these numbers are disturbing, they shouldn’t be surprising, given the considerable shift the private sector is making towards temporary and contract workers. In 2010, for example, more than one-quarter of the 1.17 million new private sector jobs added to the economy were temporary.
“It hints at a structural change,” Allen L. Sinai, chief global economist at the consulting firm Decision Economics, told The New York Times. Temp workers “are becoming an ever more important part of what is going on,” he said.
Compared to past economic recoveries, this higher emphasis on temporary workers is unprecedented—leading many to worry that the shift towards unstable part-time and contract work will become a dominant feature of our economic reality.
After the recession in the early 1990s, for example, just under 11 percent of the jobs added were temporary positions, compared to more than 26 percent in 2010.
In order to avoid paying workers health insurance and benefits, more private companies—including massive corporations like WalMart—are turning to temp agencies and contract or part-time workers to keep their profits high while keeping payroll down.
Yet, workers have begun to fight back against this structural shift in employment in the United States. Over the last year, workers’ strikes have protested this employment instability, with walkouts or work strikes in the WalMart warehouses and retail stores across the country and in the fast food industry across New York City and in Chicago.