Disappearing health coverage

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If the freelance economy keeps freewheeling along the highway to universal self-employment, the paid vacation may soon find itself in the antique market right beside the typewriter.

The Society for Human Resource Management (shrm.org) surveyed 450 companies in 2003 and again in 2004 and found that only 68 percent of them offered paid vacations, down from 87 percent in 2002. That's a precipitous drop in a horrifyingly short period of time. It's also a sign that all sorts of perks are on the endangered-species list.

Where paid vacation goes, so goes paid sick leave. Only 29 percent of those companies offered it in 2004, compared with 68 percent the year before. Quite the slippery slope.

Employer-based health insurance coverage is ailing, too. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation issued a report this month showing "an increasing number of employees in America are declining their employer's offer of health insurance, as the cost of individual premiums increased dramatically across the nation over a five-year period." The report shows some 3 million fewer workers who qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance enrolled in it in 2003 than in 1998. As costs balloon, employers are forced to scale back to remain competitive.

So to revisit Tuesday's question, "What's wrong with this picture?" there is a decided disconnect between the president's claim of a burgeoning job market and the pessimistic consumer. Both views are justified, but consumer pessimism is better grounded in reality. More jobs are being created. More of those jobs are part time and light on paid benefits.

If America can't supply its workers with good jobs, it should at least educate them to survive in an increasingly freelance environment. Those with superlative employment skills will flourish. Those without will wither.