It May Be Hard to Go Back To Full-Time Work

Back in April of 2013 I wrote about how Obamacare was increasing incentives for offering part-time rather than full-time work.   I warned at the time that once employers got used to scheduling based on part-time shifts, they might never want to go back because it could actually be cheaper and easier than using full-time workers

The service industry generally does not operate 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, so its labor needs do not match traditional full-time shifts.  Those of us who run service companies already have to piece together multiple employees and shifts to cover our operating hours.  In this environment, there is no reason one can’t stitch together employees making 29 hours a week (that don’t have to be given expensive health care policies) nearly as easily as one can stitch together 40 hours a week employees.   In fact, it can be easier — a store that needs to cover 10AM to 9PM can cover with two 5.5 hour a day employees.   If they work 5 days a week, that is 27.5 hours a week, safely part-time.  Three people working such hours with staggered days off can cover the store’s hours for 7 days.

Based on the numbers above, a store might actually prefer to only have sub-30 hour shifts, but may have, until recently, provided full-time 40 hours work because good employees expect it and other employers were offering it.  In other words, they had to offer full-time work because competition in the labor market demanded it.  But if everyone in the service business stops offering full-time work, the competitive pressure to offer anything but part-time jobs will be gone.  The service business may never go back.

The future American service worker will likely be faced with stitching together multiple part-time shifts.  Companies may partner to coordinate shifts so that workers split time between the companies, and third-party clearing houses may emerge in a new value-added role of helping employers and employees stitch together part-time shifts.

Today Virginia Postrel sees this effect in action

The worst thing about being on jury duty isn’t actually serving on a jury. It’s having to check in every day -- possibly several times a day, depending on your local system -- to see whether you’ll be needed. You can’t plan either your work or your personal life. Your schedule is unpredictable and completely out of your control.

For many part-time workers in the post-crash economy, life has become like endless jury duty. Scheduling software now lets employers constantly optimize who’s working, better balancing labor costs and likely demand. The process demands enormous flexibilityfrom part-time workers, sometimes requiring them to be on call all the time without knowing when they’ll work or how much they’ll earn. That puts the kibosh on the age-old strategy of working two or more part-time jobs to make ends meet. As my colleague Megan McArdle writes, “No matter how hard you are willing to work, stringing together anything approaching a minimum income becomes impossible.”


  1. mogden:

    No problem. Obama will just declare part time work illegal.

  2. DaveK:

    An then there's the push for the 30-hour workweek (or 27, if you want to keep it safely part-time). If this does happen, the result is likely to be both Mom and Dad each holding down double jobs in order to maintain (or improve) their standard of living. A decade or so of inflation further eating into the living standard will leave us with only one option... repeal the child labor laws an put the kids to work full-time! Then the entire family can be happily slaving away to afford the big-screen TV and the monthly cable bill.

  3. me:

    Technically, there's nothing wrong with working multiple dynamically scheduled part time jobs, as long as there is a simple, shared scheduling alternative and employers ensure they train sufficient workers so that they have some overcapacity (allowing for illness, vacation, unforeseen events etc.)

    I suspect at this point, there is insufficient support for the worker side of scheduling and a mentality concerning employee availability on the employer side standing in the way of an efficient system.

  4. randian:

    No problem, Obama will just define down "full time" to be whatever is needed. Who cares what the law actually says.

  5. bigmaq1980:

    Good idea..."insufficient support for the worker side of scheduling"...there should be an app for that.

    At one point I had three jobs and worked with the employers to make sure there was enough flexibility to make all happy.

  6. Rick C:

    "Technically, there's nothing wrong with working multiple dynamically scheduled part time jobs"

    Well, except for what's been discussed: it makes it more difficult for a worker to stitch together the 2 or 3 jobs he'll need to make ends meet. I saw an anecdote yesterday about a 24/7 McDonald's that expects its workers to be essentially on-call all week long. No way to get a second job if the first can call you in on a day's (or less) notice.

    One thing this will lead to, if it sticks, is fewer people living alone. If workers can only hold down one part-time job, you'll start seeing 2, 3, or more people sharing an apartment, just to make ends meet.

  7. irandom419:

    Another benefit is no risk of overtime. You have someone working close to 40 hours and a crunch happens, no risk if they are only scheduled for 30 hours.

  8. J Calvert:

    One way to solve this problem is to mandate hourly employees schedules be posted in advance. You can still use the flexible scheduling software, but you have to pay people to stay ready to work on less than a days notice.

  9. Joe:

    The link in your second source to the Marketplace article is eye opening. Recently we have seen a surge in hiring. The Housing Survey tells us that we see more and more people working part time. The Establishment Survey shows that average weekly hours worked shows a different story. Average weekly hours worked in the 30 months ending December 2008 was 34.53. Average weekly hours worked for the most recent 30 month period is 34.44. A difference of less than six minutes a week. Not much of a difference. I wonder if "just in time scheduling" is the answer for this discrepancy. If part time employees are expected to be "on call" for full time or near full time hours could the establishment survey be recording these employees as working more hours than they actually work? When these employees are surveyed in the Housing Survey they are reporting the number of hours they actually work.