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A recent report from the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago found that a record number of U.S. employees are involuntarily working part-time as a result of a reduction in their hours or being unable to find a full-time job. This effect of the recession is in addition to unemployment currently affecting nearly 10 per cent of the workforce.
Susan Lambert, associate professor, commented:
"Certainly the current recession is contributing to underemployment, as evidenced by the proportion of American workers classified as 'involuntary part-time'."
Researchers explain that the U.S. Census Bureau applies the term "involuntary part-time" to those working less than 35 hours a week because they could not find a full-time job or because of "slack demand". There were 9.2 million workers in this category in November 2009. Although the largest recorded figure, it reflects trends seen in earlier recessions. The labor market added 1.5 million involuntary part-time workers between 1981 and 1982 (for a total of 6.8 million workers) and 2.3 million between 1992 and 1993 (for a total of 6.7 million workers). The current study investigated management and employee aspects of scheduling practices in a national retail apparel firm. Researchers explain that the majority of waged and salaried employees are hourly and/or part-time workers who are particularly vulnerable to imposed changes. They receive limited formal employee benefits, and many are ineligible for public benefits (such as unemployment insurance, cash assistance, or family and medical leave). Their work schedules are typically arranged with little prior notice and are often unpredictable. The researchers call for changes in public policy as well as company practices to address these issues.
Susan Lambert said:
"I think it is important to underscore that employment has become increasingly precarious over the past 30 years, not just during recessionary periods, due to structural changes in the economy, reductions in labor protections and evolving employer practices that pass risk from the market onto workers. The current recession highlights these insecurities, bringing much-needed attention to the plight of disadvantaged workers who are struggling to keep their jobs as well as maintain sufficient hours to make ends meet. The problems faced by hourly, low-level workers are unlikely to go away when the economy fully recovers."
Whatever the economic conditions, employers frequently use "just-in-time" practices to maintain control over costs and demand. Hourly workers' schedules are used to accommodate fluctuations often with limited notice. This disadvantages workers trying to manage their finances, childcare arrangements and other aspects of family life.
Julia Henly, associate professor, said:
"Unpredictable work schedules can translate into instability in family routines and practices, placing additional burdens on already strapped and busy families, their caregivers and extended family members. We find that hourly retail employees with more predictable work schedules report lower levels of stress, less work-to-family conflict and fewer work interferences with non-work activities such as scheduling doctor's appointments, socializing with friends and eating meals together as a family."
Among other significant findings:

  • Hours vary substantially for both part-time and full-time hourly workers, with full-time employees working more hours but also experiencing the greatest fluctuations in hours from week to week.
  • The more hours employees work and the less their hours fluctuate, the longer they remain at the firm, even after accounting for factors such as age, race and job status.
  • Job turnover is high, particularly for part-time sales associates, younger workers, African Americans and recently hired workers.
  • Management practices contribute to job turnover irrespective of individual worker characteristics. Managers who strategically limit staff numbers with the goal of providing each sales associate with sufficient hours have lower turnover and higher retention rates.

The researchers acknowledge the importance of workplace flexibility in public policy debates as more parents try to reconcile competing demands of work and family life. Common flexibility options include allowing workers to work reduced hours, work at home, or vary the start and end times of the working day. These may make sense for managerial and professional roles but are less applicable to many low-level hourly workers. This issue will be addressed in four government- sponsored regional conferences scheduled for the next twelve months.
The authors comment:
"Fortunately, policy makers, advocacy groups and researchers are becoming increasingly interested in developing and promoting flexibility options for U.S. workers in hourly jobs. As these initiatives proceed, it will be important that they reflect the range of work conditions found in hourly jobs, including low-wage jobs in service industries."
The third author is Anna Haley-Lock, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin.

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