PBS Newshour: More part-time workers suffer instability, long hours to make ends meet

Originally published by PBS Newshour
September 1, 2014

Photo by PBS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a Labor Day story about the changing nature of the job market in this country.

As workers seek more flexibility in their hours, and employers seek more control over labor costs, the number of part-time jobs is soaring.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at some of the consequences. It’s all part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nearly 11:00 on a Saturday night, and 24-year-old Onieka O’Kieffe is leaving the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her mother, sister and 1-year-old niece for Manhattan. It’s an hour-long trip, between the walk to the subway station and then three train rides to Midtown. But O’Kieffe isn’t going to a party or pub. She’s heading to work, to get her part-time schedule for the coming week, and she might be on the Sunday midnight shift, which begins in an hour.

ONIEKA O’KIEFFE, Part-Time Worker: I’m not sure if I’m working, so I’m going to go there and see my schedule, and if I have to work, at least I’m ready.

PAUL SOLMAN: O’Kieffe works the graveyard shift in the stockroom at American Eagle in Times Square, earning $8 an hour, her choice, she says, so that this job won’t interfere with her other part-time gig, a day shift in the stockroom at Crocs shoes in Herald Square. Between the two part-time jobs, O’Kieffe worked 60 hours the prior week. On August 6, she’d gone to the E.R. with a 104-degree fever.

ONIEKA O’KIEFFE: With the lack of sleep and, you know, not enough time to take care of myself, that my immune system was compromised, and I got sick. Everyone tells me that it’s not good for you to, like, overexert yourself to that degree, but, like, the money’s necessary for rent, utilities and things like that.

PAUL SOLMAN: While more Americans are now employed than before the downturn began, O’Kieffe represents one of the most startling statistics of the post-great recession period: three million more part-time workers who report that they want full-time jobs, but can’t find them.

The total is up by more than 50 percent since 2007. Why the part-time explosion? Because so many would-be full-timers are competing for the same jobs, and have to take what businesses offer, and, says MIT business Professor Zeynep Ton:

ZEYNEP TON, MIT Sloan School of Management: The dominant view in business is to see labor as a cost to be minimized and pay employees as little as possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, companies hire part-time, and use the latest computer technology to get maximum efficiency from every part-timer, with scheduling software that programs workers as interchangeable parts.

ZEYNEP TON: Sometimes, there are lots of customers. Sometimes, there are a few customers. And they can measure this in as short as 15-minute increments now with technology. So their view is: Why don’t we match the number of people that we have as closely as possible to customer traffic?

That way, when customers are there, we can serve them better and when they’re not there, we don’t have anybody idle, standing around doing nothing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Makes sense.

ZEYNEP TON: Makes sense. However, when the mind-set is to see labor as a cost to be minimized, retailers and lots of other companies find themselves in a vicious cycle. And this vicious cycle is downright brutal for employees.

These are from repetitive strain injuries.

PAUL SOLMAN: Starbucks barista Liberte Locke is in hand splints, the result, she says, of trying to supplement her 20 scheduled hours the prior week with enough additional shifts to get by.

LIBERTE LOCKE, Bartista, Starbucks: You never can find it, like, spread out as a regular person would work, you know? It’s — you end up just having to just take what you can. So I did a 12-hour shift one day and then 11 hours the next day, and by the end, both arms were just so cramped up, I could barely close my hands.

PAUL SOLMAN: Locke, who’s been at Starbucks eight years, says she’s seen the advent of optimal scheduling.

LIBERTE LOCKE: When I was hired, managers would be fired if they weren’t putting out schedules three weeks in advance, but now it’s every week, and I believe it’s the new automatic system only allows them to do a week in advance. But we’re required to give six months in advance of availability of when we’re available to work.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, she says, baristas wanting to work at least 32 hours a week have to make themselves available 70 percent of the hours the store is open.

LIBERTE LOCKE: This store is only closed three hours out of the day. So it makes you have to be available for over 100 hours, in the hopes of getting 32. So it makes it extremely impossible to go to school, impossible to work a second job.

PAUL SOLMAN: Starbucks’ scheduling practices, and the havoc that they can wreak on workers, were highlighted in a recent New York Times article about San Diego barista Jannette Navarro, a single mother whose life was falling apart, largely because of her erratic work schedule.

Almost immediately, Starbucks president Cliff Burrows announced a change of policy: “We will work quickly to update to our scheduling software to give store managers greater ability to provide stability and consistency in schedules week-to-week for our partners.”

But Starbucks is far from the only company using so-called just-in-time scheduling software. And some retailers go a step further, says union representative Janna Pea, with on-call scheduling.

JANNA PEA, Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union: You have to be available to work, but if they call you and say, we don’t need you, you don’t get paid for making yourself available for what you thought would have been a shift of money. That is the kicker, and that is what’s most unfortunate, on-call along with just-in-time scheduling, because the workers literally have to be available at the snap of the retailer.

PAUL SOLMAN: Melody Pabon became fed up enough to quit. A cashier at Zara in Midtown Manhattan, she asked not to work weekends, when it was hardest to find affordable child care. So, instead, she was often assigned to close on weeknights, putting her back home in Brooklyn past midnight. Sometimes, she didn’t see her 4-year-old Mason for days.

MELODY PABON, Former Part-Time Worker: My son is well-mannered for his age, but working those hours, the whining and the crying, like temper tantrums here and there, which that’s something he rarely did. So I was like, you know what? This is actually taking a toll on him as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: When she asked for further accommodation, she says her hours started to dwindle. So when the store closed for renovation last month and Pabon was given the choice of a transfer or a layoff, she opted for the latter and the relative security of a regular unemployment check.

MELODY PABON: Am I going to be playing juggling with my money, and work two days a week, three days a week, four days a week not knowing, especially if it’s only maybe a few days in advance? And I have rent to pay. I can’t do that.

PAUL SOLMAN: The problem, says business Professor Ton, is that, in squeezing employees, companies are shooting themselves in the foot.

ZEYNEP TON: When you see labor as just a cost to be minimized, the outcome of that is high employee turnover, absenteeism, bad morale, bad customer service, operational problems, low sales, and low profits.

When sales are low, then labor budgets are reduced, and this vicious cycle continues.

PAUL SOLMAN: So why do they do it?

ZEYNEP TON: Excellence is a lot harder to achieve than mediocrity.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, no company would speak to us about this. But Mollie Lombardi, a human capital management consultant, says the software itself is not nefarious, because without it:

MOLLIE LOMBARDI, Workforce Management Analyst, Brandon Hall Group: Managers end up spending a lot of time in the backroom sort of looking at bits and pieces of paper of people’s vacation requests, and looking at delivery schedules, and trying to find the balance between the right number of staff and the right number of slots available in the shift.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, Lombardi says:

MOLLIE LOMBARDI: If a manager is told, you need to operate at the least labor cost possible, they may take that to heart a little too literally, and start to schedule down to bare-bones and actually not be delivering the customer experience or the employee experience that the company wants.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, Onieka O’Kieffe did have to work at American Eagle on Sunday, midnight to 6:00 a.m.

ONIEKA O’KIEFFE: I can’t complain because it’s hours, but I was hoping to have today off.

PAUL SOLMAN: Then 7:00 a.m. to noon at Crocs, back to American Eagle at midnight on Monday, and on to Crocs for the noon-to-8:00 p.m. shift. And so it went last week, until she’d put in 24 hours at American Eagle, 33.5 at Crocs, 57.5 hours in all.

ONIEKA O’KIEFFE: It’s been extremely difficult, more so than I imagined. I would like a full-time job, but I realize they’re very few and far between. You got to do what you got to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, you can find Paul’s extended conversation with MIT’s Zeynep Ton, author of “The Good Jobs Strategy.” That’s on our Making Sense page.