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Some 35 million people are part of the U.S. contingency work force.

They are temporary, part-time, free-lance, subcontracted and independent-contract workers and consultants - and the majority are women: It's estimated that women make up 66 percent of contingency workers and 60 percent of temporary workers.The problem with being a contingency worker is that you are paid less (part-timers average 40 percent less than full-timers), usually have no health insurance or other benefits and are not eligible for training or advancement.

Increasingly, as employers continue to "downsize" by marginalizing full-time jobs, contingency employees become what is known as "disposable" workers.

"Not so long ago, employers would simply have hired women and people of color for less money," Ellen Bravo, head of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, told Ms Magazine. "You can't get away with that anymore. But there are no restrictions on inequity for part-time and temporary workers - where women and people of color tend to be over-represented."

That's precisely what concerns June Lapidus, assistant professor of economics at Roosevelt University. Lapidus, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, specializes in women in the economy. Her doctoral thesis in 1990 was a study of the temporary help in-dus-try.

One of her chief worries about contingency workers is what the economist calls "attachment" to the work force.

"Workers used to have a long-term relationship with a particular employer, and even in times of economic downturn, the relationship continued, and there was a sense you would go back to work for that employer when the slowdown was over," said Lapidus, who also teaches at The Center for Popular Economics in Amherst. "That's no longer true, and, therefore, an attachment exists to a much lesser extent."

Just as perilous for workers is their stake in a slow economy. "Contingency work transfers the risk that goes with an economic turndown to employees rather than employers," the economist said. "Employees merely become part of the inventory, similar to the relationship employers have to parts suppliers so they don't have to incur costs of maintaining inventory.

"The growth of a contingent work force is doing the same thing to human resources. And it has tremendous economic costs for women."

Lapidus says a contingency work force is "dangerous for workers and the economy as a whole. Part-time workers can't make long-term plans, can't get a mortgage or car loan and have less income to buy."

She also observes that "when workers have a stake in the `community' of the workplace, they have an incentive to work harder and learn more the longer they work there. And the employer saves money."

But how can you convince employers to hire full-time workers? Economist Julianne Malveaux, author of "Sex, Lies and Stereotypes" (Pines One, $14.95), says businesses with large full-time staffs should be rewarded through tax credits or other incentives. Or "those that have large part-time labor forces should be penalized."

Lapidus also has a solution that includes federal and state legislation.

"The real solution is for everyone to work fewer hours, to have a shorter workday," she said. "Then the distinction between part-time and full-time would diminish."

She suggests reducing the 40-hour workweek to 30 or 35 hours. But she wants to keep the five-day week.

"Shorter hours on a daily basis would benefit women with children," Lapidus said. "Women often accept part-time jobs because of family concerns, but part-time jobs are not structured to be career-building jobs. But if all jobs assume family responsibilities through shorter hours, and also involve men in the lives of their children, women would no longer suffer a penalty in the labor market."

The economist sees "hope for change, because the current 6 percent unemployment rate may be permanent. With rising productivity, that makes ideal conditions to start talking about a shorter workweek."