The recovery from the Great Recession has been long, slow and steady. But it has also contributed unexpectedly to an increase in involuntary part-time work, which needs new regulation to protect workers from abuse, according to a new study released this week by the Economic Policy Institute.
Author Lonnie Golden finds that voluntary part-time work has remained more or less stable since 2007, around the start of the recession. But involuntary part-time work has increased by about 18 times the rate of growth of all work, and five times faster than part-time work. Currently, some 6.4 million Americans who want full-time jobs are stuck working part-time hours, according to Golden.
“The increase is almost entirely due to the inability of workers to find full-time jobs, leaving many workers to take or keep lower-paying jobs with less consistent hours to make ends meet,” he says. “In several industries, relying more on part-time work seems to have become the ‘new normal.’”
Employers often play it cautious after a recession, waiting to restore full-time jobs and hiring more part-timers as their businesses pick up. But, as Golden points out in his study, the recession isn’t responsible for the rise in involuntary part-time work. Structural shifts are almost entirely at play in this change in employment.
Golden argues that such an expansion represents a change in the long-term strategy of businesses in four key sectors of the economy, specifically, retail trade, leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, and educational and health services.
He reports that about 54 percent of the growth of involuntary part-time employment since 2007 comes from retail and leisure and hospitality, while the remainder of the growth mostly stems from the other two types of industries.
Involuntary part-time workers are about equally men and women, but workers in other demographic groups — black, Hispanic and prime-age workers, for example — more commonly suffer from not being able to find full-time jobs.
Notably, Golden found no evidence that the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate caused the rise in involuntary part-time work.
Involuntary part-time workers usually work about half the hours of full-timers, get lower rates of pay per hour and fewer, if any, benefits. Workers at fast-food chains and other employers that rely extensively on part-timers also report that managers often reward or punish workers by adjusting the number of hours they are given. Such irregular scheduling of involuntary part-time work can disrupt family life. On the other hand, if workers have control over their schedules, such variation is one of the principal appeals of part-time work.
Golden reports that some experiments in public policy suggest a way of regulating part-time work to improve the prospects for part-time employees. One approach used in many countries and recommended by the International Labor Organization (ILO) is to require employers to provide part-timers the benefits of full-time workers, prorated to the hours they work. The ILO recommends setting minimum standards for hours of work, as the Washington, D.C., city council did recently for janitors in large commercial buildings.
Following the lead of legislation such as San Francisco’s “Predictable Scheduling and Fair Treatment” ordinance, states and cities could enact rules giving part-time workers a right of first refusal if additional hours of work become available. Golden also recommends adjusting unemployment insurance to make sure that part-timers can benefit.
In the end, he argues, part-time work needs to make sense for workers at least as much as it does for employers.
“Although there has been a structural shift toward involuntary part-time labor, we can address it with specific policy solutions that will help workers,” Golden says. “We should use every tool in our toolbox to further the economic recovery and help benefit millions of workers with more stable, better-paying job opportunities.”
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.