What’s wrong with part-time jobs — and what we can do about it

Photo by photologue_np , published under Creative Commons license.

Photo by photologue_np , published under Creative Commons license.

Almost one in five U.S. workers has a part-time job. Some people work part-time because it suits them, like a $100 an hour computer programmer. But more of them are like the part-timers featured in a 2014 New York Times article, and the 400+ people who wrote in to comment on it. Liz from Wheaton, Illinois, commented:

“As an RN with a master’s degree, you’d think I would fare better, but no. One Christmas Day not so long ago I was scheduled to work the 3-11 shift at the local hospital. I showed up for my shift but was told, “Didn’t someone call you? Our census is down and we don’t need you. But stay by your phone because you are on call for the next four hours” (without pay).”

As an RN, Liz probably got paid a living wage for the hours she worked. Many part-timers at retail, food-service and health-care jobs get minimum wage or a dollar or two more an hour. They typically get less than a week’s notice of work schedule, and have little or no say over when they’ll work. NPR reported in March on the difficulty faced by part-time workers with uncertain schedules:

“Randa Jama pushes airline passengers on wheelchairs to their gates at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. This had been a full-time job when she took it last fall, but then a couple of months later, that changed. …

“That cut her hours to 12 a week. Sometimes, her supervisors ask her at the last minute to stay late or do an extra shift. Since she cut back on babysitters, she can’t accommodate.”

The New York Times article included Mary Coleman’s story:

“After an hourlong bus commute, she arrived at her job at a Popeyes in Milwaukee only to have her boss order her to go home without clocking in — even though she was scheduled to work. She was not paid for the day.”

Jama and Coleman’s stories are bad enough — for even worse horror stories, read the stories from Wal-Mart workers published at Gawker.

A Tale of Two Workforces: The Benefits and Burdens of Working Part Time, a new study from Rutgers University, focused on nearly one in five U.S. workers who do not have full-time jobs. Researchers found 19.6 million “voluntary” part-time workers, who choose to work part-time. Another 6.5 million involuntary part-time workers would rather work full-time, but can’t get a full-time job. That’s about two million more than before the Great Recession, and many economists expect the number to stay high.

A recent AP article warned that the U.S. job market “just isn’t what it used to be.” The article forecasts a “new normal,” with a lower overall percentage of labor force participation and more part-time workers. If that’s the new normal, the country is headed in the wrong direction.  Sally McKenna of San Francisco commented to the New York Times:

“The compact for employer/employee used to be a mutually beneficial respectful give and take. Slow day? The employer took it on the chin, but the employee worked their regular hours and was paid accordingly. Overall the employer was rewarded with stable trained productive staff and the employee a stable livable wage and life schedule. We’ve lost the thought that business is not only for the employers’ bottom line, but is a social and economic compact to build companies, communities, and nations that benefit all. Wow…it doesn’t take long to lose a culture. Breathtaking really.”

Part-timers include people who work one job, and people who put together three part-time jobs in a desperate attempt to feed their families. They include people who earn minimum wage and consultants who take home big bucks. Some high school students work after school to pay for their cars, and others work after school to pay for their family’s food. Moms and dads who can’t find full-time work struggle to put together part-time jobs. Some people can only work part-time because they are caring for a child or parent or spouse.

The Rutgers study identified some predictable differences between voluntary and involuntary part-time workers:

  • Race: Voluntary part-time workers are more white, and involuntary part-time workers are disproportionately people of color.
  • Gender: Twice as many women as men are voluntary part-time workers. Of course, “voluntary” is a relative concept: women are more likely to be caregivers for their children or parents or spouses, leading them to choose part-time work because it’s all they can do.
  • Class: Involuntary part-time workers are poorer. They earn less on an hourly basis and their family incomes are lower.

Part-time workers deserve job stability, predictable schedules and respectful treatment. That’s not an impossible challenge. Jim D. Taylor of South Dakota commented to the New York Times:

“As a small business owner for over 30 years I have always been able to provide my part-time employees with a firm, steady, and predictable schedule. Sure, sometimes it’s quiet…but there is always work to be done. My employees are a vital and important asset. I treat them right and they do their best for me. It’s so easy…why can’t big business run by MBAs and highly compensated executives figure that out? We’ve got a fundamental flaw someplace in our economic thinking…maybe it’s the proliferation of finance driven business over productive business. We need to stop playing numbers games and get back to really making things and providing real service to customers.”

A few cities, including SeaTac and San Francisco, have passed ordinances protecting part-time workers. The ordinances require paid sick time and minimum notice time for work schedules, and require employers to offer full-time work to employees who want it before adding more part-time positions. It’s time to work for state and federal legislation to extend these protections to all part-time employees.

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