Part-time is better than no-time

Dee Kline and her husband Chris.

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TESS VIGELAND: We've already mentioned the unemployment figures that came out this week. What those numbers don't cover are the underemployed workers. Contractors who aren't getting jobs and the growing ranks of part-timers. You could argue that these days it's better to have some work than no work. But the new reality can be a tough adjustment.

Here's Ashley Milne-Tyte.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: Dee Kline used to work used to work full-time for a small furniture importer in San Diego. But after the financial crisis hit last fall, everything changed.

Dee Kline: Our sales plummeted and we had a staff of seven people, of which quickly reduced to two. And the two of us that are left are only working 24 hours a week.

Dee and her husband have paid off their mortgage, but she's only working three days a week now and earning just $30,000 a year. She says that's not enough to live on comfortably. She's 55. Her husband retired early and doesn't get full benefits.

So they're cutting back. They're not going out much, they're spending less money on meat and alcohol and more on fresh produce. Dee picks up a box of fruit and vegetables at the farmers' market every week.

Dee at the farmers' market: Look at these pretty strawberries, beautiful strawberries.

She says item by item, the organic produce isn't cheap.

Dee: But then I'm being a lot more selective about what I buy. Actually, I'm probably doing better with my dollars and getting a lot more, just by being mindful of what I'm doing.

But her lower income involves bigger sacrifices than steak and beer. She no longer hops a plane to see her kids. She's only making minimum payments on their college debt and hers.

Dee: I worry, you know. I get wrapped up in fear sometimes, which is absolutely the most unpleasant aspect of this is what I do in my head and all the things I think of that could go wrong.

Healthcare is Dee's biggest concern. Now she's earning less and her company only pays half her health insurance costs. She switched to a cheaper policy. But her co-pays are higher. She's skipping routine check-ups, like mammograms and eye exams. She worries she could lose her insurance altogether. Still she realizes she's lucky compared to some.

Beth Shulman is a working economy analyst at the Russell Sage Foundation.

Beth Shulman: People working part-time hours -- you know, 30 hours a week -- may not qualify for healthcare coverage and pension coverage. And these are jobs that support families.

Next to the drop in pay, the biggest problem for most downsized workers, is losing their benefits. Shulman says only 24 percent of part-timers get some level of healthcare from their employers. She says it's time employer and government safety nets cover part-timers too.

Shulman: What we've seen in the United States is a real discrimination against part-time workers. And we haven't caught up with the 21st century workforce or workplace. The number of part-timer workers has tripled since the 1950s.

She says for one thing, there are a lot more women working. Many spend less than 34 hours a week on the job and look after children or parents the rest of the time. And she says industries like retail and hospitality have exploded. Many of those jobs are part-time to begin with.

Robert Trumble directs the Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. He says part-timers may be a bigger part of the workforce today, but they still have an image problem.

Robert Trumble: Many employers see part-timers as more expendable. The view that the "good" employees have full-time jobs.

Many employers say they're cutting hours, so they don't have to carry out full-blown layoffs, but Trumble says employees working shorter weeks shouldn't bet on getting their full-time jobs back when the economy rebounds.

Trumble: Partly it's because there's an ever-evolving labor force, there are new people entering the labor force. And that employer may feel that one of those new entrants to the labor force would better suit their needs than the person they have.

Dee Kline hates to think about that kind of thing. She says she's trying hard to be positive. That entails the occasional avoidance tactic. She hasn't opened her retirement account statement for months. She is trying to make good use of all the hours at her disposal. She volunteers with a local environmental group and she says she's glad to have an excuse to be more thoughtful and less materialistic.

Dee: I've had time to sit on my porch with my cup of coffee in the morning and watch the sunrise. So that's part of my trying to stay in the present moment and appreciate my current circumstances and the joys that are available to me every day.

Still she says her new mindset would go just as well with a full-time job.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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