As the White House brags that lost jobs resulting from O’Care make Americans free to pursue other activities, the jury is still out. Many researchers conclude that O’Care is taking its toll on the declining average workweek—certainly not good news for a robust and stable economy. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Job creation rose from an initial 113,000 in January (later revised to 129,000) to 175,000 in February. The January number frightened many, while the February number was cheered—even though it was below the prior 12-month average of 189,000.
The labor market’s strength and economic activity are better measured by the number of total hours worked than by the number of people employed. An employer who replaces 100 40-hour-per-week workers with 120 20-hour-per-week workers is contracting, not expanding operations. The same is true at the national level.
The total hours worked per week is obtained by multiplying the reported average workweek hours by the number of workers employed. The decline in the average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls by 3/10ths of an hour—offset partially by the increase in the number of people working—means that real labor usage on net, taking into account hours worked, fell by the equivalent of 100,000 jobs since September.
Another possibility for the declining average workweek is the Affordable Care Act. That law induces businesses with fewer than 50 full-time employees—full-time defined as 30 hours per week—to keep the number of hours low to avoid having to provide health insurance. The jury is still out on this explanation, but research by Luis Garicano, Claire LeLarge and John Van Reenen (National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2013) has shown that laws that can be evaded by keeping firms small or hours low can have significant effects on employment.
The improvement in average weekly hours worked was reason for celebration after the recovery began. The recent decline is cause for concern. It gives us a more accurate but dismal picture of the past two quarters.