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What We Know (and Don't) about Part-Time Work

Show me the data: that’s often the first thing decision-makers say when it comes to public policy on labor and employment. And in many ways, it’s the raison d’etre for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the first federal agency devoted to statistical analysis. It was founded in 1884 with the charge of recording and sharing facts about who was working, where, and under what conditions.

If headlines are any indication, some of the biggest question marks among policymakers about today’s data – who’s working, when, and how—emerge from the issue of part-time work. Elizabeth Warren and other lawmakers this week introduced a new “Schedules That Work Act,” highlighting an ongoing conversation about the ways in which flexible scheduling has proven to be a double-edged sword for part-time workers in low-wage jobs—especially in retail—who face unpredictable schedules that employers can change at a moment’s notice. Earlier this summer, a California labor commission’s ruling that an Uber driver was an employee, not a contractor, also generated controversy and debate about how government should create policy and regulate labor practices to address part-time work as the “share economy” continues to evolve.

What headline news stories often overlook, however, is the sheer diversity and scope of the concerns involved when debating policy avenues to help part-time workers—which brings us back to data. “If you don’t have good data, you make what is technically known as lousy decisions,” quipped the Honorable Erica Groshen, Commissioner of Labor Statistics for the BLS, at a recent event at New America, where she presented the latest federal numbers on part-time workers and talked with New America Senior Fellow David Gray, Senior Policy Analyst Mary Alice McCarthy, Opportunity@Work Managing Director and Co-Founder Byron Auguste, and Diana Furchgott-Roth, Director of Economics21 and author, with Jared Meyer, of the recent book Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young.

As Groshen broke it down, part-time work in America by the numbers looks vastly different depending on whether you’re working part-time by choice or not. Overall, part-time workers’ share of the workforce surged to 20 percent during the recession and is falling slowly, back down to 18.6 percent in June. Involuntary part-time work specifically—which includes employees whose jobs would normally be full-time but lack enough hours to go around and those who were unable to find a full-time position at all—“rose a lot during the Great Recession,” reported Groshen, “and it remains high,” particularly for women and for young Americans. The median wage for that involuntary part-time work last year was $9.78, compared to $14.98 for full-time workers.

The over-representation of young people among the ranks of underpaid involuntary part-time workers wasn’t a surprise to Furchtgott-Roth, who wrote Disinherited to “talk about how government policy”—on things like student debt, healthcare, and regulation of labor practices—is biased in favor of older people.” She suggested that government policies, in addition to favoring older generations, also incentivize employers to keep their employees working part-time and singled out recent proposals to mandate overtime pay or benefits like paid leave to caution that “we need to really be careful about laws that push employers in one direction.” In the meantime, as she indicated, “together with the 10 percent of 20-24 year olds that are unemployed and the 40 percent who think they are underemployed, about half of them find that the training is not paying off. So the question is: what to do about that? I think one answer of course is growing the economy. We need faster economic growth, so that these employers will say to these PT workers ‘I need you to work full-time.’”

Furchgott-Roth pointed as well to burdensome licensing and certification requirements as a hindrance for young people seeking to break into new professions. Auguste concurred and argued that while the issue of occupational licensing is usually handled at the state and local level, addressing it should be a national conversation because the problem “has grown like a weed all around the country” and it’s an “area of policy where we could make a lot of progress on a bipartisan basis.” The requirements have gone too far, he said, and “it’s certainly exacerbating this insider/outsider dynamic where people who are already working in a field are essentially pulling up the ladder behind them.”

For McCarthy, who works on New America’s Higher Education Initiative, the biggest challenge arises from the fact that the 6.5 million Americans who are involuntarily working part-time have “radically different needs” than many, if not most, of the 26 million who comprise the part-time workforce overall. “They’re not part-time workers as much as they’re part-time unemployed,” McCarthy explained, “so when we think about what sorts of policies are appropriate for that 6.5 million, they look a lot more like the policies we direct to unemployed people” through the public workforce system. “This is a population really in serious distress” and facing enormous instability in life, she emphasized, “but the problem is…they’re kind of invisible.”

Auguste is also grappling with how disconnects in the system render groups of people—in this case, workers with skills to succeed in IT (which currently account for 12 percent of open jobs)—invisible, even when employers are looking for them. His team at Opportunity@Work is trying to re-wire the labor market to enable employers and prospective employees to make better connections with one another.

Although workplace flexibility remains a contentious issue, especially for the 6.5 million Americans working part-time not by choice, Auguste expressed reservations about a one-size-fits-all approach to policies that govern how employers and employees use technology. We should “regulate as we may need to some of the more extreme disruptions in the lives of part-time workers, [but] you wouldn’t want to simultaneously outlaw or stop the growth of systems that actually put more actual, genuine flexibility and choice and potential to optimize their earning power in the hands of those workers.”

Ultimately, the discussion circled back around to data. In his comments, Gray identified a mismatch in the impression among the public and in the media that we’re in the midst of an explosion in voluntary part-time work, and Groshen’s data, which suggests otherwise. “We have hypotheses,” she noted, “but we don’t have the evidence yet.” Alluding to the tight budgets constraining federal agencies like BLS in their efforts to gather further information about part-time workers, she continued, “we would love to be able to go after these questions and we hope everybody’s elected officials will decide that’s a worthwhile thing to do.” For Auguste, the “value of better data” is evident and “it is so inexpensive relative to the policy mistakes that you make without it. So I think anyone, across the ideological spectrum, who really is trying to make the system function better should be supportive of this kind of request.” 

Author:

Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion editor at CNN.com. She was previously an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America, where she helped to produce The Weekly Wonk.