If this economic recovery feels part-time and temporary, it could be because so many of the jobs it is creating are part-time and temporary.
Part-time employment has surged in recent months, highlighting both the tentative nature of this long, slow economic recovery and the changing dynamics of work.
Through July, according to Labor Department statistics, the number of people working part-time in the U.S. grew four-and-a-half times as fast as the number of full-time workers. And the share of all workers who mainly hold part-time jobs, is at levels not seen since the early 1980s.
Several reasons account for this trend, economists say, from technological change to shifting demographics, from economic unease to the onset of the Affordable Care Act. Some Americans are happily part-timing it, for a little extra money while in semi-retirement or in school. Others work part-time because the only alternative is no work at all.
In August, the Labor Department says, there were 7.9 million Americans working part-time involuntarily, almost twice as many as in 2006. Four-plus years since the Great Recession technically ended, those numbers haven’t changed much, and people who watch the labor market say they have no idea when they will.
“This is a really peculiar incident,” said David Wiczer, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “[The share of part-time workers] always comes up in the aftermath of a recession, but it usually starts to fall again. This time it hasn’t fallen.”
Indeed, as the economy cratered in late 2008 and early 2009, the share of workers who are only employed part-time, which the government defines as 35 hours a week or less, shot up, hitting 20 percent in January 2010. Since then it has ticked down a bit, but just a bit. In July, that figure was 19.6 percent. This was in a period when the economy added nearly six million jobs.
Part-time work has particularly picked up lately. From January through July, the number of working Americans grew by 960,000, according to Labor Department surveys. The number of those who have full-time jobs is up 172,000. The ranks of part-time workers are up 766,000.
Many of the industries with the fastest job growth this year are ones that tend to hire a lot of part-timers. And lately, some of those workers have been pushing for a better deal.
In August, fast-food workers walked off the job, as part of nationwide protests. While higher wages were the centerpiece of their campaign, many workers walking the picket lines complained about inconsistent and unpredictable hours, too.
Since January, Lillian Cunningham has been riding the bus, an hour each way from her home south of downtown St. Louis, to work at a Wendy’s in Ballwin, Mo. Her job pays $7.40 an hour. Most weeks, she gets 25 to 30 hours of work, spread over five days – not enough for benefits – and it’s not unusual, Cunningham said, to be sent home early, or even to show up and be told she’s not needed that day.
“Sometimes they call. Sometimes they wait until I get there, and they say, ‘We’ve got enough people,’ “said Cunningham, a mother of two. “It’d be nice to have the same schedule all the time.”
Cunningham said she likes her job and the people she meets, but when she heard about the fast-food strikes rippling across St. Louis this summer, she joined in. Better pay. More hours. Benefits. She needs something more from her work.
“When I get paid, every cent goes to rent and food,” she said. “There’s never anything left over.”
Others, though, are part-time by choice. They like the money, but they also appreciate the flexibility that can come with a shorter schedule. Older workers, in particular, are staying in the workforce longer, just not in a 40-hour-a-week role – and their large numbers are helping to add to the part-time rolls, Wiczer said.
“There’s this demographic bulge right now that’s moving toward more part-time employment,” he said. “In 10 years, that’s not going to be the case.”
By then, perhaps, it will be clearer what role bigger economic shifts are playing in all of this. Many of the jobs that have been slower to grow back since the recession are ones that traditionally offered a 40-hour week at average wages, in fields such as manufacturing, construction, and clerical office work. If technology and globalization mean those sorts of jobs never return to the United States, it’s not clear what will replace them. This is not a new phenomenon, according to Wiczer.
“Really, since the 1970s, a lot of job growth has been in either low-end occupations or high-end occupations,” he said. “And lower-end occupations often have more part-time work.”
What is new is the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that large employers provide health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours per week. This has some companies – particularly in the restaurant and retail industries – warning that they’ll be forced to respond by cutting hours, resulting in yet more part-time workers.
Andy Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of St. Louis-based burger chain Hardee’s, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer that the mandates will likely change the way his industry manages staffing needs.
“Everybody is hiring more part-time employees,” he told the Journal. “Through attrition, three full-time employees go away, and you hire four part-time employees who basically have the same hours.”
But economists say that won’t make much of a difference in the long run.
In a recent paper, two researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimated that “Obamacare” might boost the ranks of part-time workers by one or two percentage points; federal regulations have long encouraged employers to skirt health care costs through part-time hiring, wrote Rob Valletta and Leila Bengali.
“The ultimate effect (is) likely to be small,” they wrote.
The economists suggest that a much bigger factor in whether people can find full-time work is the overall strength of the economic recovery. And once that starts to feel more full-time, the jobs it’s creating will, too.