Millions of Americans are stuck in part-time jobs

A server smiles as she talks with customers at a Seattle restaurant.

At first glance, 178,000 jobs added in November and the unemployment rate falling to 4.6 percent—the lowest level since before the Great Recession—indicates that the U.S economic recovery continues to hum along. Weak spots exist—many men are not working and have stopped looking for a job altogether—but millions of people have gotten back to work over the past seven years.

Yet millions of working Americans cannot find a full-time job, and are forced to patch together an income through taking on one or more part-time jobs. This extent of this phenomenon is quantified by the Economic Policy Institute in a new report by Lonnie Golden, who finds that 6.4 million Americans are now working part-time involuntarily—a level that is 44.6 percent higher than it was in 2002, after the “dot-com” recession in the early 2000s.

Golden’s report highlights that involuntary part-time work is most prevalent in the low-wage retail and hospitality industries and finds that Hispanic and African American workers—especially women—are more likely to be part-time involuntarily (which is echoed by other research as well). Golden finds that the rise in involuntary part-time work is not just due to lingering effects of the recession but also because of a fundamental change in the way many employers do business. The low-wage retail and hospitality industry (including restaurants) have increasingly adopted so-called “lean-labor strategies” that precisely match the number of staff working with consumer demand. These scheduling practices mean that it’s common for even “full-time” workers to see their hours cut if a manager decides they are not needed.

Part-time workers also are paid less, and not just because they are working fewer hours. Golden notes that the hourly wages of part-time workers are lower than their full-time counterparts, even in the same job. The nature of part-time work also in increasingly different, with many employers doing away with the “standard” weekly shift. Instead, many part-time workers must cope with their schedules shifting week-to-week amid last-minute schedule changes.

Then there are growing reports of “on-call” shifts, in which employees are forced to call their employer to see if they will be assigned to work, and of workers reporting to work only to be sent home early (or before the shift even begins). Golden finds that part-time workers, whether voluntary or involuntary, face variable hours at a rate 2.5 times higher than full-time workers, and are much more likely to report irregular and on-call shifts.

No longer is it easy for workers in these industries to combine a part-time job with school or a second job and arrange predictable childcare because their schedules change week-to-week or day-to-day. What’s worse is this—these workers may have no idea how much they are going to bring home at the end of the month and may lose eligibility for government benefits if they do not work enough hours.

The rise in involuntary work poses macroeconomic challenges as well. When people do not have money to spend, businesses cannot sell their goods and services. While some states have “reporting pay” laws or regulations that address unpredictable scheduling practices, there is no state or federal legislation that directly targets the millions of employees that are stuck in part-time jobs. Golden suggests policies such as laws that give part-time workers more hours if they become available (instead of hiring another part-time worker), and a federal mandate that pays workers when their shifts or canceled or change.

December 19, 2016


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