We have an economic puzzle. Since the Great Recession, the number of people stuck working part-time — because they can’t find a full-time job or can’t get full-time hours — is way up. The number has roughly doubled since 2007, from approximately 4 million to 8 million.
At the same time, there’s been a sharp drop in the number of people who are holding down multiple jobs, and most of those are likely to be part-time, since there are only so many hours in a day. The number of multiple job-holders is down by more than 500,000 since 2007. So, there are more people in part-time jobs, but fewer people able to cobble together two or more of those jobs to make ends meet.
Explaining the first part of this economic conundrum is relatively straightforward. It’s the recession. Jobs are still hard to find. Well-paying full-time jobs are even harder to find.
“I’m used to working three to four jobs, historically, because I never seem to work jobs that pay me any money, so I need to work a lot of them,” says Justine Pope.
This reporter met Pope while she was eating a bagged lunch in a park in downtown Portland, Ore., during her mid-day break. Pope is 27. Count back to the late 2000s, when she graduated from Whitman College in Washington. Pope has pretty much never seen a healthy job market. “I farmed, I waitressed, I landscaped, and I nannied,” says Pope. “And I never earned more than $18,000 in a year. I know it’s shocking. So I feel like I’m doing OK now.”
Pope feels like she’s in OK shape now because she’s found two jobs — legal assistant and research assistant. Each gives her about 20 hours per week, and together they pay just enough to cover her bills.
This trend to more part-time work could be permanent. Employers like the flexibility, and the low cost. Benefits in many part-time jobs — health care, retirement — are slim to none.
But there’s a complication. For job-seekers, it’s now harder to find and keep multiple part-time jobs. “Among low-wage employers — retail, hospitality, food service — employers are requiring their employees to say they’re available for a full-time schedule, even when they know they’re never going to schedule them for full-time,” says Stephanie Luce at the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute.
Luce is a labor sociologist who studies union movements around the world. She co-authored, with the Retail Action Network, a study based on surveys of retail workers in New York, Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short. “Managers are asked to schedule based on customer-flow, on weather, on trends in the economy, and to change the schedule day-to-day,” says Luce. “They don’t want employees that are going to say ‘I can’t come in, I have another job.’ They want employees that’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll come in if you need me. I won’t come in if you don’t need me.’”
You don’t have to go further than the nearest fast-food joint to see this trend. Devonte Yates is 21, and works at a McDonald’s in Milwaukee. He lives with his mother and little sister. Yates is getting an associate’s degree in criminal justice, so he’s paying tuition, a cell phone bill, plus rent to his mother and helping with the groceries. He’s paid minimum wage: $7.25 per hour. Yates’s bus ride to work takes 90 minutes, and costs him $4.50 round trip.
“The schedule comes out Fridays,” says Yates. “However, it is subject to change — at least that’s what’s written at the bottom of the schedule. Sometimes you can work a 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., and then the very next day have to be back at 6 in the morning. They schedule you so randomly that it’s pretty much impossible to find another job.”
Yates says he worked two jobs previously — at Walmart and at a local company that provides phone-captioning services to the deaf. Those employers, he says, allowed him to work consistent, non-overlapping schedules. But Yates says the 24-hour McDonald’s where he works expects employees to offer ‘open availability’ or basically, to be on-call all the time. Sometimes, it’s for a two-hour shift; sometimes, an eight-hour shift.
The owner of the Milwaukee McDonald’s franchise where Yates works, Deborah Allen, provided a written statement to Marketplace by email, in response to questions about her restaurants’ scheduling practices: “I value my employees and their time spent in our restaurants. We try to work with all of our employees to provide flexible scheduling options that meet both the needs of the employee and the restaurant.”
There’s management-speak for this trend in on-call worker-scheduling expectations, says Stephanie Luce: ‘just-in-time scheduling.’
“I was just reading a retail consulting report,” says Luce, “that said this was the main area in which businesses could achieve profit — using labor-scheduling technologies. Employers want to reduce their cost. It was excess inventory in the ‘90s. And now it’s excess employment. This is a way for them to cut down on labor costs, and in theory shift it from a fixed cost to a variable cost that could shift with consumer demand.”
Meanwhile, multiple office-job holder Justine Pope says she likes the variety of having so many jobs. She’s also tired of having so many jobs. “I know my situation is certainly not sustainable long-term,” says Pope. “I would hope to not work so many jobs or so hard my entire life.”
The thing is, she just might.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.