Maryland needs part-time parity

April 09, 2003|By Heather L. Gomes

WHAT HAPPENS when a struggling single mother supporting two children loses her part-time job? Like other workers, she is assisted with Unemployment Insurance (UI), right? Wrong.

In Maryland, those who are unemployed and seeking part-time work are ineligible for UI benefits.

Fifty years ago, Maryland's highest court interpreted the unemployment law as requiring applicants for benefits to be able and available for full-time work. The harsh effects of this policy fall disproportionately on women, especially low-income women, and prove that the state doesn't support family values such as caretaking.

In Maryland, women make up 68 percent of the part-time work force. Women continue to perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid caretaking work while suffering adverse effects on their wages and opportunities in the paid labor market as a result.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an Opinion * Commentary article April 9, "Maryland needs part-time parity," misstated a 1953 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The article should have said the court ruled that a woman who was only willing to work part time was not "available for work." The Sun regrets the error.

Women who are mothers often must take part-time jobs, which generally pay less on an hourly basis, in order to care for their children. Indeed, two-thirds of mothers work less than full time while their children are young. Single mothers juggling work and family responsibilities have the most difficult time, both practically and economically.

The old rationale for excluding part-time workers from UI eligibility was that part-time workers were not working to support their families. But this is not true today.

In households with a part-time worker, an average of 25 percent of family income is earned by the part-timer. In female-headed households in poverty, part-time full-year earnings represent 91 percent of family income. The UI system, which was meant to be a partial safety net, is completely dysfunctional for those workers who most need it.

Times have changed since 1953, when the Maryland Court of Appeals declared that a woman who was only willing to work part time was not "unavailable" for work.

At that time, part-time workers were a fraction of the work force. Since then, the number of part-time workers in the United States has nearly tripled. In 2000, the most recent year for which figures were available, more than one-fourth of Maryland's unemployed were seeking part-time work -- 28,000 out of 108,000 people.

The structure of the economy has changed, so that today's service and retail industries often offer only part-time jobs. As a result of recent "work first" policies, many women leaving welfare are channeled into part-time, low-paying positions in these industries.

UI taxes are collected on the wages of all workers. In effect, taxes collected on earnings of part-time workers subsidize benefits paid to full-time workers. Meanwhile, women who are unemployed and seeking part-time work are prohibited from receiving the benefits they deserve.

Instead of valuing women caring for their children, the UI system penalizes them. If we truly value families, we would not force working mothers in part-time employment to forgo the income protection provided by the UI system. By adopting parity for part-time workers, as have other states, Maryland could show that it values families and cares about gender equality.

Twenty-four states provide at least partial benefits to part-time workers, of which eight -- including Delaware and Pennsylvania -- pay UI benefits to unemployed part-time workers under the same rules that apply to full-time employees.

Heather L. Gomes is a visiting student at the University of Maryland School of Law and a candidate for a joint M.A./J.D. in women's studies and law at the University of Cincinnati.

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