Australia's post-Covid jobs snapback is all about part-time work

Greg Jericho
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters

The September labour force figures highlight just how difficult Australia’s recovery from the pandemic will be – the initial “snapback” was quick, but leaves many jobs still to return. And mostly the recovery is all about part-time work – full-time work lost has barely returned at all.

One of the problems with the labour force figures at the moment is you have to exclude Victoria to get any meaningful data. Given the lockdowns that occurred in that state during September and October, we can’t really include their data if we want to get a sensible picture of the recovery.

Related: The government must wake up to the fact the Covid recession has hurt Australian women more | Greg Jericho

Consider that if we look at the fall and recovery of monthly hours worked per capita in each state we see that most states have recovered around 75% of the hours lost due to the pandemic, but Victoria has not recovered at all:

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Hours worked per capita is one of the best ways to measure the health of the labour force. It also is good for measuring just how much of our adult population is spending its time working.

And while suggesting that we have roughly recovered 75% of the lost hours sounds good, we need to look at it in the longer context.

The problem is the hours worked number was falling before the virus hit. The most recent peak was at the start of 2019, when all Australian adults (which includes those not in the labour force) were working on average 87.2 hours a month. By March this year that had fallen to 85.6 and now is at 80.9:

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Crucially, even at the start of 2019 the average level of work we were doing was well down on what we were doing during the mining-boom years.

And while including Victoria means the average level of hours worked is as bad as it has been since the 1980s recession, when we exclude Victoria it is still as bad as it was at the bottom of the 1990s recession.

Hardly a sign of health.

The big reason is because, as happens during every recession, full-time work collapsed, and in the “snapback” part of the recovery, it has barely recovered.

One piece of data that has been missed is that, excluding Victoria, more people in Australia worked part-time in September than had ever done before.

In September there were just over 3 million people outside Victoria working part-time – some 34,200 more compared with the 2.98m in March.

That is a snapback!

The pity though is that in September, when we exclude Victoria, there were 240,000 fewer people working full-time than there were in March:

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In the ACT, for example, there are now 1,100 more people employed than in March. But it has all been part-time work. There are 4,100 more people working part-time now than in March, but 3,000 fewer people working full-time.

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That is why, even with a relatively decent return in hours worked per capita, the level of adults working full-time remains lower than ever recorded:

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And when we talk falls in full-time work we usually mean men, but in this recession, unlike previously, women’s full-time work has been hit just as hard.

After March, women’s full-time work (excluding Victoria) fell 6.1% compared with 4.1% for men. In September the figure for women had recovered to be down 3.3% on March levels, while men’s had barely improved – still down 3.8%:

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And what has also occurred is that full-time workers have become a greater source of underemployment.

Normally the biggest reasons for being underemployed are that you work part-time or full-time but you would just prefer more hours.

Since March, however, the number of workers in those categories have either stayed the same or fallen, while the percentage of workers who usually work full-time but are working part-time due to economic reasons has doubled:

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All up, we see a picture that, when we exclude Victoria, shows some employment “snapback”. But that snapback was nowhere near enough to return the situation to where it was in March.

And what we are seeing also is a shift in the type of work being done – from full-time to part-time.

Previous recessions have always led to a lower percentage of adults working full-time, and the Covid recession looks to be no different.