Half Lives: Why the Part-time Economy Is Bad for Everyone


Editor's note: This is part of Lynn Parramore's ongoing AlterNet series on job insecurity and part of the New Economic Dialogue Project.

Why is a whole job getting harder to find every day in America?

Ever since the financial crash, a growing number of people have been forced to take part-time gigs when what they really want is something increasingly out of reach: solid, full-time employment. Between late 2007 and May 2013, the number of part-timers jumped from 24.7 million to 27.5 million. A 2013 Gallup poll shows that one in every five workers is now part-time. Some folks, like students, may work part-time because they want to. Nothing wrong with that. But involuntary part-time employment is not a choice, it’s a burden. Often it means substandard jobs with crazy schedules that don’t pay nearly enough. According to the Labor Department, as many as a third of all part-timers fall into the involuntary category.

There are signs that their ranks are likely to swell.  

Part-Time Nation

Employers have found a new excuse to drop full-time employees to part-time status: the Affordable Care Act. Diane Stafford of the Kansas City Star looks at a trend called the “Obamadodge,” in which bosses around the country, including Regal Entertainment Group, franchise owners of Five Guys, Applebee’s and Denny’s, and the owner of Papa John’s pizza chain, have announced plans to side-step new requirements that businesses with over 50 full-time-equivalent employees offer their full-time workers access to a qualified healthcare plan or pay a penalty.

The healthcare law defines a full-time employee as anyone working more than 30 hours a week, so the boss simply cuts workers' hours and hires additional part-time staff to make up the difference. Stafford notes that as many as 2.3 million workers across the country are at high risk of having their hours slashed to below the 30-hour mark.

Another rising trend is employers changing part-time workers’ schedules from week to week. According to a New York Times report, this manuever is becoming commonplace in the American retail and hospitality industries. Bosses use sophisticated software to track the flow of customers and purchasing patterns in stores, which allows managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand. Instead of five- or six-hour shifts, workers get two- or three-hour shifts. They are often called in at the last minute, and have no way of predicting which days they’ll be working.

At Jamba Juice, for example, employers at Manhattan’s popular smoothie shop use weather forecasts and temperature checks to make micro-adjustments to weekly schedules. If the weather tomorrow is hot, the boss knows that more customers are likely to come in for a cool drink, so more employees will be called in for certain shifts. The managers of clothing stores use different variables to estimate shopping patterns. As with so many trends that negatively impact workers, Walmart is cited as a pioneer in the heavy reliance on part-time workers and the penalizing of those who have difficulty adjusting schedules.

The Times notes that according to a 2011 survey by the City University of New York, half of retail workers in New York City were part-time, and only 10 percent of part-timers had a set schedule week to week. One out of five said they had to be available for call-in shifts either all or most of the time. Obviously, single mothers and others who can’t shift schedules at the drop of a hat, like students trying to take classes, suffer miserably under the new paradigm. And there's little chance of working more than one part-time job if your schedule is in constant flux.

The Price of Part-time

Part-time workers are far more likely to be paid minimum wage than full-time workers (13 percent v. 2 percent). As they struggle to make ends meet, many will —if they can — take on multiple part-time jobs to compensate for indadequate hours and pay. Involuntary part-time employment stigmatizes workers, attacking their self-esteem and diminishing their expectations for the future. It disproportionately impacts women, younger workers and minorities. Forced part-time workers share far less than full-timers in America’s economic gains. Their purchasing power drops, as does their standard of living. Companies tend to invest less in training part-time employees, treating them like replacable widgets. They get less work experience, which makes it harder for them to transition to higher paying jobs down the line.

In the past, research on employment usually focused on only two categories of people: the employed and the unemployed. But in the last decade or so, more studies have devoted attention to the plight of the forced part-time worker and the underemployed. The findings are alarming.

The American Psychological Association reports a variety of ailments associated with underemployment, including depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being and poor self-esteem. Researchers have found that full-time work is critical not only to the mental well-being of workers, but to their physical health as well. An increase in chronic disease is but one of the ways that forced part-time workers suffer.

The story of Stacy M. is typical. She was fired from her job as an educator after 12 years and found part-time employment at a university center. Working 30 hours a week, her rate of pay was actually higher than her previous full-time job, but when she factored in the loss of benefits, including paid time off and employer subsidized health insurance, her net earning had dropped.

Stacy lives in Massachusetts, and since health insurance is mandated, she chose the family plan with the lowest premium. Even so, coming up with nearly $1,000 per month is a stretch, and her family earns too much to qualify for any subsidized plans. Her plan has a high deductible, so Stacy’s family gets hit with medical expenses they’d never had to pay in the past. “My recent followup to my PCP to check on my blood pressure after my annual physical in February will only be partially covered by our plan,” wrote Stacy in an email. “I can only imagine what our out-of-pocket expense will be for my son's cardiology checkup. Wonder why my blood pressure is elevated….”

As Stacy’s case shows, involuntary part-time employment not only hurts individuals, it puts a strain on families and can lead to negative effects on children, including increased stress, substance abuse, impaired relationships and a host of other ills. Communities suffer, too, as a result of the growing income inequalities that increased part-time employment tends to produce. People feel a keener sense of unfairness, despair and various kinds of tensions that fray the bonds between neighbors.

On a macroeconomic level, plenty of negative effects pile up when people face the kind of insecurity that forced part-time work often brings. They may squirrel away every penny to cover surprise medical expenses, for example, which hinders the whole economy. Econ 101 tells us that when people don't have money to spend, businesses can’t sell products and services. Part-time workers become increasingly dependent on public services, which strains state and municipal budgets.

What To Do?

The involuntary part-time trend is ultimately bad for the economy as a whole, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Many economists who follow the neoclassical school that has dominated the national conversation since the 1980s pretend that the trend is natural and inevitable, and that any intervention is useless or worse. The truth is that economic systems don’t operate by immutable “laws” like gravity. Economics is not like physics. Human beings work together and make decisions that shape our economic destiny. We can make good decisions and bad decisions.

We can decide to fund job training and support labor unions that are able to bargain for things like advanced notification of schedules and other protections. We can focus on job creation rather than misguided deficit reduction and austerity. We can support research on the effects, both social and economic, of increased involuntary part-time employment, and enact policies that discourage companies from shifting the burden of market fluctuations onto the backs of workers. We can expand, rather than constrict, the social safety net, and move towards single payer healthcare. We can demand benefits for part-time workers.

Or we can move increasingly to a paradigm of gross inequality, indentured servitude, monopolistic conditions, a decimated middle-class, increased poverty, and social unrest.

Let’s not kid ourselves: We need a robust political movement that is keenly focused on reversing these trends as well as a fundamental shift in the way we approach economic questions. We need to remember that what’s good for workers is good for the economy, and that you can’t built a solid economic foundation -- or a stable society -- on permanent job insecurity.

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