A little-noticed clause in President Obama’s new jobs bill could result in a dramatic drop in the jobless rate. However, the quality of the jobs, and the goods and services that result from them, could suffer significantly.
The proposal to encourage more “job sharing” — an arrangement that allows two or more workers to split a single job — could knock the current 9% unemployment rate to almost zero. But having multiple people performing a task that was previously done by a single individual could have a serious downside, economists warn.
“It’s bound to get a little crowded on the other side of the bank teller window,” noted Princeton’s Mike Brennan. “If you’ve got half a dozen clerks all trying to help you at once, I’d recommend you count your money carefully.”
The plan offered by the administration is based on the European model, where the workforce is allowed to keep up its skills and maintain benefits while working drastically reduced hours.
Republicans were quick to attack the bill.
“Based on a European model?” asked House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “What, does everybody have to start smoking and making themselves vomit to lose weight? I don’t think we need to have public policy in the United States dictated by a bunch of Eurotrash stick-figure models wearing the latest style in goofy hats.”
“The American people,” added House Speaker John Boehner, “are not prepared to wear goofy hats.”
Democrats seemed to be warming slowly to the idea of job-sharing. Some saw it as a way they might be able to hold onto their Congressional seats should there be another Republican sweep in the 2012 elections. Others said they wanted to wait and see how practical the plan is before deciding to oppose it.
The President could point to several pilot projects already under way that aim to prove job-sharing will work on a large scale.
“Let’s not use the pilot project as an example,” urged White House press secretary Jay Carney. “Those pilots couldn’t agree whose responsibility it was to deploy the landing gear, and the jet crashed killing all aboard. That’s probably not the illustration you’d want to use.”
Instead, Carney directed reporters to a print shop outside Washington, D.C., where a work-share arrangement has resulted in the hiring of almost 100 new employees.
“We used to have one typesetter who would key in all the menus, flyers, resumes, etc., which we produce for our customers,” said KwikPrint manager Gretchen Hastings. “Now, we have a whole staff of typists, with each one responsible for a particular letter or punctuation mark.”
Hastings said her newly expanded staff will gather behind the keyboard and step forward to key their individual character as needed. The workers will share the $15-per-hour salary allocated to the position, allowing each person to pocket a much-needed 15 cents an hour.
“We thought about paying more for those in charge of keying the most-commonly-used letters, but that would’ve been an accounting nightmare,” Hastings said. “The payroll department is already struggling to absorb its nine new workers [one for each digit, plus the original accountant] and we didn’t want to complicate things further for them.”
Most of the typesetters are simply grateful to have gainful employment.
“I had been looking for almost 18 months, so I was really glad to finally land something,” said Beth Barber, who’s in charge of typing all “g’s”. “At least I got my foot in the door. Maybe they’ll eventually expand my responsibilities to include the letters ‘f’ and ‘h’.”
“I’m so grateful to be here,” said Bruce Rabin, who lost his job in banking in 2008 and has been unemployed ever since. “I’m going to type the hell out of my ‘w’ while I’m there, and hope that I make a good impression.”
April Johnson, the veteran typesetter who had to move aside to make room for all the new hires, was not as happy with the change as her fellow workers.
“The pay cut obviously sucks. I’ve got to admit, though, that it gives me more time to spend with my family,” Johnson said. “I live close by and, since my new responsibility includes only the relatively rare ‘z’, I have time to run home and check on my ailing mother in between words.”
Press secretary Carney said other businesses are also starting to get on the job-sharing bandwagon.
“There’s a car dealership in Arlington where potential buyers meet with salesmen who sell only a particular part of the car,” he said. “And I’ve heard of several Wendy’s (hamburger outlets) who use separate order-takers for each item on the menu.”
Carney denied a report that even his job as press secretary would be split among several dozen previously unemployed workers.
“To have a crowd of people standing up here, each one separately in charge of saying their own particular word in response to your questions, just wouldn’t be feasible,” he said. “The White House needs to communicate a clear, focused message on this issue.”
Told that most Americans questioned in a recent poll said they felt President Obama’s communications on the jobs issue were “muddled” and “confusing,” Carney said only “oh”.
“Hey, we could use that guy,” print shop manager Hastings said. “Our ‘o’ lady just quit to take a job in the healthcare field. She’s in charge of opening the Band-Aids, then handing them off to another worker to be applied to the injured patient.”