When employer costs are taken into account, it is unclear whether jobs are something that can be efficiently shared.
The idea behind work-sharing is that employers have a certain amount of work that needs to be done, and that the work can be divided by many employees working a few hours each or a few employees working many hours each. If hours per employee could be limited, by this logic employers would have to hire more employees to get the same amount of work done.
American labor law has traditionally placed some limits on employee hours, such as overtime regulations. While the recent Affordable Care Act does not strictly limit hours per employee, beginning next year it gives employers a strong push toward part-time employment by levying a significant fee per full-time employee and exempting part-time employees from the fee.
A number of employers have said they would change some work schedules to part time from full time to avoid some Affordable Care Act fees. Because part-time workers generally have fewer benefits than full-time employees, this could save employers a considerable sum. From the work-sharing perspective, the part-time employee exemption by itself would be expected to increase employment, because employers would have to hire more people (probably on a part-time basis) to complete work their employees used to accomplish when full time.
But it is possible that work-sharing would reduce employment rather than increase it, because it prevents employers from accomplishing their tasks at minimum cost, adding administrative and coordination expenses. Higher costs for employers may put them out of business, or at least reduce the scale of their business. When companies reduce the scale of their activities, that means fewer employees.
It is also possible that work-sharing would reduce employment by making jobs less attractive to people who desire full-time work. One reason that people sometimes justify commuting long distances to work or enrolling in demanding training programs – trucking and nursing are two such occupations — is that they expect to recoup those cost by taking advantages of opportunities to earn extra by working long hours.
Work-sharing proponents have credited Germany’s comparatively low unemployment rate to its adoption of a work-sharing program, because the program encourages German employers to reduce employee hours rather than lay workers off. Work-sharing proponents may be right, although Germany carried out a number of labor-market reforms at the same time, such as allowing businesses to use temporary workers more easily.
As the Affordable Care Act suddenly pushes business toward part-time employment, we economists will have an unusual opportunity to learn whether cutting employee hours creates jobs, or destroys them.