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Part-time workers on rise in Mass.

Many forced to settle for lower-pay jobs

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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The number of people who took part-time jobs because they were unable to find full-time work has grown nearly fourfold in Massachusetts since 2000 and has been accelerating at an alarming pace for much of this year, according to an analysis by Northeastern University.

In the first eight months of 2011, the number of so-called underemployed workers in the Bay State surged 18 percent to 200,500, a sign the economic recovery has been so weak - and companies so reluctant to hire - that many workers have little choice other than to take lower-paying jobs.

The rise of the underemployed in Massachusetts and across the country also might help explain why consumer spending, a key driver of the US economy, has been anemic and why the country could potentially fall back into a recession.

“The problem has been very bad, and the size of it is something we haven’t seen before,’’ said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, who prepared the analysis for the Globe. “The magnitude of this is really hurting the economy badly.’’

Tom Poirier, 59, of Lowell, is a prime example. He earns less than half of his income of just six months ago. A former salesman of information-technology products, he works two part-time jobs, a total of 22 hours a week, as a security guard in Boston and at a computer repair business in Burlington.

He and his wife have cut all unnecessary spending, Poirier said at a recent job fair at the Radisson Hotel in Boston. Gone are their BlackBerrys; now he keeps a low-cost cellphone for emergencies only.

“We’ve dropped out of the consumer rat race,’’ he said. “We have remarkable restraint; we’re just not big consumers at this point.’’

The difficulties faced by workers like Poirier are not reflected in the state and national unemployment rates that capture headlines. Massachusetts’ unemployment rate was 7.4 percent in August, compared to the nation’s 9.1 percent, figures that track people who are without a job and are looking for work.

If one factors in the ranks of the underemployed and the unemployed who have given up looking for work, a bleaker portrait emerges: About 15.9 percent of the labor market is not fully employed, Sum said. Nationally, the number would be even higher, he said, at 18 percent.

The Northeastern analysis found that underemployed blacks and Hispanics in Massachusetts outnumbered underemployed whites by more than two to one through August of this year.

Of all the high school dropouts who had jobs through August, 11.3 percent were underemployed, regardless of race. That was more than three times the rate for college graduates, 3.2 percent.

Greg Tivnan, a government budget analyst for 13 years, took a job as an airport limousine driver after he was laid off last year. The Bentley College graduate said the last year has been a struggle; his wife was laid off a few months after he lost his job.

The couple, who live in Holden, began collecting Tivnan’s early retirement to take advantage of lower health care rates.

He said his wife has landed a job she likes, conducting court background checks, but their standard of living has not rebounded. The couple has been in negotiations to lower their mortgage payments, and vacations are no longer an option.

“The money coming in is not what it used to be,’’ Tivnan said, estimating the couple earns about 40 percent less than two years ago. “Definitely it’s a blow to my ego. I talk to my wife a lot about it.’’

For others, the reduction in hours has forced them to apply for government aid, including food stamps.

Robert Crews, 60, of Boston said he worked for years at his brother’s painting company, earning a union wage of more than $30 an hour, until work dried up with the recession. Since then, he has struggled to find a steady job and currently earns about $8 an hour at a Boston nonprofit, training other workers how to weatherize homes.

Crews said he receives about $160 a week for the work before taxes and relies on $200 a month in food stamps to eat. When asked about the changes in his lifestyle, he said, “Everything is a huge challenge on $8 an hour.’’

Poirier, the former high-tech salesman, said he continues to search for full-time employment while working his two part-time jobs.

Laid off five months ago, after his company was acquired, he has submitted more than 250 job applications and has gone on about four interviews, he said, with none resulting in full-time work.

Poirier said it is discouraging, particularly because he has also watched the value of his Lowell home slide about 25 percent since he bought it in 2002.

On a typical Saturday, he works from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., taking calls for the computer repair company in Burlington, then drives 40 minutes to Boston to work a 4-to-midnight shift as a security guard, changing into a suit in a bathroom before his shift.

Poirier said he used to spend Sunday evenings with family, but his life has changed.

“I’ve got to work,’’ Poirier said. “I’ve got to make sacrifices.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.