The Wall Street Journal: Elevated level of part-time employment: post-recession norm?

Originally published by The Wall Street Journal, Nick Timiraos
November 12, 2014

Photo by Taylor Glascock/Wall Street Journal

Nearly 7 million Americans are stuck in part-time jobs that they don’t want.

The unemployment rate has fallen sharply over the past year, but that improvement is masking a still-bleak picture for millions of workers who say they can’t find full-time jobs.

Martina Morgan is deciding which bills to skip after her hours fell at Ikea in Renton, Wash. Sandra Sok says she’s been unable to consistently get full-time hours after she transferred to a Wal-Mart in Arizona from one in Colorado.

In Chicago, Jessica Davis is frustrated by her schedule dwindling to 23 hours a week at a McDonald’s even though her location has been hiring. “How can you not get people more hours but you hire more employees?” the 26-year-old Ms. Davis said.

The situation of these so-called involuntary part-time workers—those who would prefer to work more than 34 hours a week—has economists puzzling over whether a higher level of part-time employment might be a permanent legacy of the great recession. If so, it could force more workers to choose between underemployment or working multiple jobs to make ends meet, leading to less income growth and weaker discretionary spending.

Employers added some 3.3 million full-time workers over the past year, but the number of full-time workers in the U.S. is still around 2 million shy of the level before the recession began in 2007. Meanwhile, the ranks of workers who are part time for economic reasons has fallen by 740,000 this year to around 4.5% of the civilian workforce. That is down from a high of 5.9% in 2010 but remains well above the 2.7% average in the decade preceding the recession.

“There’s just less full-time jobs available than there used to be,” saidMichelle Girard, chief economist at RBS Securities Inc.

The slow decline in part-time work is particularly acute when broken out by industries. For the retail and hospitality sectors, the number of involuntary part-time workers in October was nearly double its prerecession level. For construction, mining and manufacturing work, by contrast, the share of such part-time labor was just 9% above its pre-recession level.

Other data show that the ability of part-time service workers to find full-time work has been much slower during the current recovery. In goods-producing industries, around two-thirds of involuntary part-time workers in July 2013 had found full-time employment by July 2014, up from 60% in 2009, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. But for service-sector workers, the rate has seen little improvement. Around 48% of involuntary part-time workers in July 2013 had found full-time work one year later, up from around 46% in 2009.

An important question for policy makers now is whether the elevated level of involuntary part-time work is due to cyclical factors, meaning it will fall as the economy heals, or to structural changes that have made employers more inclined to rely on a larger contingent workforce and avoid converting part-time workers to full-time positions.

On one side are economists like Ms. Girard, who say greater economic uncertainty and rising labor costs—from increases in the minimum wage, regulations or health-care expenses stemming from the Affordable Care Act—explain higher levels of part-time work. “There is a structural element to this at the very least,” she said.

The health-care law requires employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent workers to offer affordable insurance to employees working 30 or more hours a week or face fines. “Companies are just more inclined to hire part-time workers, not necessarily because of the health-care law, but for business reasons that make it a more attractive option,” Ms. Girard said.

Anecdotal reports have suggested employers have cut hours to prepare for the implementation of the health-care law, but that hasn’t been borne out by economic data.

An analysis by Bowen Garrett of the Urban Institute and Robert Kaestner at the University of Illinois at Chicago found a small increase in part-time work this year, but the increase occurred for part-time jobs with between 30 and 34 hours—above the 30-hour threshold that would be affected by the health-care law.

Other economists say higher levels of involuntary part-time work are mostly cyclical. Businesses don’t appear to be paying part-time workers more than full-time workers; that would be one clear sign of a shift in hiring preferences.

Elevated levels of involuntary part-time work in service jobs may reflect how low-wage employers ramped up hiring earlier in the recovery. More recently, the sector has absorbed those returning to work after long unemployment spells.

Part-time work in service jobs is “a stepping stone for the unemployed and for people out of the labor force,” said Adam Ozimek, an economist at Moody’s Analytics. Labor markets are “improving in just the way you would expect.”

Labor advocates, meanwhile, say technological changes in how businesses schedule employees are at fault. Software allows employers to schedule and cancel shifts rapidly based on business conditions.

Carrie Gleason, the director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, a labor advocacy group, said that could explain why more part-time workers say they want full-time work. “There’s now this persistent uncertainty in the jobs that hourly workers have today,” she said.

Ms. Morgan, the Ikea worker, has held two jobs simultaneously in the past and she isn’t interested in doing that again. The single mother of two, who works in the furniture store’s cafe and receives health benefits, has seen her hours drop to 20 per week from around 35 earlier this year.

“I need to spend some time with my kids,” said Ms. Morgan, 32. “Two jobs? It’s too much.”