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Part-Time Work On The Rise, But Is That A Good Thing?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a new study says fewer than one in three Americans has a detailed budget. Our money coach tells us how to make a budget that actually works and why that matters. That's coming up later in the program. But before we talk about managing your money, we want to talk about how much money you might have to manage, especially if you work part-time. You might have noticed this yourself if you or a family member has been looking for full-time work.

The number of people working part-time has roughly doubled since the summer of 2007, before the recession officially began. Back then, roughly 4 million Americans were working part-time, even though they wanted full-time jobs. Today, more than 8 million Americans are working part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work, that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We wanted to talk about what this means, so we have called NPR's Senior Business Editor Marilyn Geewax. She wrote about this for NPR.org. Also with us is Amere Graham. He's an 18-year-old high school graduate who works part-time at McDonald's in Milwaukee. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.



MARTIN: So, Marilyn, let's start with you. You said that - we've talked about the fact that the number of people working part-time has doubled recently. How should we look at that? Is this a glass-half-full situation that more people are getting these jobs, or is this a glass-half-empty situation because this statistic specifically refers to people who want full-time work, but don't have it?

GEEWAX: Yes, let's think about part-time work two ways. If part-time jobs are what you want - maybe you have children at home, elder care issues, a college student - the growth in part-time jobs can be a good thing. It gives you more opportunities to earn money. But there's the problem in these numbers is we see people who want full-time work but they're not finding it.

They're long-term unemployed and they finally have to settle for these part-time jobs, and that's the thing that the Labor Department has been measuring. That's the number that is clearly much higher. You know, in economics there are always lots of disputes, but no one can dispute that the number of people forced into part-time work has been increasing. And that's something that's frustrating for people. Now...

MARTIN: It also has economic implications, clearly, 'cause if you want full-time work, then there's obviously spending that's not going to happen, saving...

GEEWAX: Right.

MARTIN: ...That's not going to happen. And you are underutilized, essentially, as an employee. Now I understand that there's kind of a raging debate over why...

GEEWAX: Why this is happening.

MARTIN: ...There is this significant increase in part-time work as opposed to full-time work. And as I understand it, a lot of the debate is over whether this is connected to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, if you prefer.

GEEWAX: Well, initially, there was - there's no question that the rise in part-time work was for purely economic reasons. That is, employers just didn't have enough work to create full-time jobs. But we're four years into the recovery now, so what's happening right now? And that's really the question. We've seen an uptake in the last three months or so in forced part-time work. And some people argue that that's because of the Affordable Care Act. One of the provisions in that new package of legislation is that employers with more than 50 employees, they have to provide health care benefits.

Well, maybe you don't want to have 50 full-time employees then, so you keep adding part-time workers to avoid that provision in the law. Now there's not really good evidence that that's what's happening because we've had a lot of part-time workers for a long time now, year after year. So is something really different this year, or is that people just sort of griping? And another way of looking at this is a sort of completely opposite way, which is that actually the economy is getting stronger.

The reason we're seeing more part-time work is because employers are starting to bring people on part-time, and later this year, those people will become full-time workers. So maybe the economy is doing poorly because employers are worried about the Affordable Care Act and they're holding back on hiring. Or maybe, the economy is actually getting better and they're adding part-time workers who soon will be full-time.

MARTIN: But you also wrote about the fact that there are implications to so many people having part-time work and the stress of part-time work is not just the money part. And that's where we want to turn to Amere Graham. Amere, tell us about your job. You work part-time at McDonald's and I understand you make minimum wage, which is what, $7.25 an hour where you are?

GRAHAM: Correct.

MARTIN: OK. So tell us about this. Is this a good job for you, in that it's flexible and gives you time to do other things, or would you rather work full-time? Or is this not a good situation? Tell us about it.

GRAHAM: I actually personally do enjoy the job, but this job - the schedules are all over the place. It disallows for any other employee that works there - any of my coworkers, me and myself - to actually even get another job because, since the days are all over the place and your schedule's unpredictable, you never know what days you work, you never know what money you're bringing in. And it just makes it an impossibility.

And they just assume that it's, you know, some job that kids just come in trying to make these small amounts of money so they can pay for shoes or something. But people actually - there's high school graduates, there's college students that come in 'cause after that boom in the economy in 2012 where there was those hundreds of thousands of college students with degrees in their back pockets, and they ended up being forced into these - into fast-food and retail to live their lives and stuff. And I suffer from this stuff, as well.

MARTIN: Tell me how you find out how you're working. How does it actually work?

GRAHAM: Last week was - pretty much, I didn't work at all that week. So if you wanted to figure out what days you worked within the next schedule, you would actually have to come in. Because I feel like there should be something, you know, like, online where you should be able to check your schedule or something, and plus a standardized schedule so you know what days you're working. But I had to call one of my coworkers to see what day I worked, to see what day I missed, 'cause I couldn't come in on Saturday to look at the schedule 'cause I had a lot of other stuff to do.

MARTIN: You have to physically go to your job, even on your days off, just to find out what days you're working and you never know from one week to the next when you're supposed to be there. Well, with that, how would you be able to sign up for college or take college classes or something like that? If you were to speak to your boss and say, hey, I'm in college and I need such and such a schedule, would he or she listen to you or is that just the way it is?

GRAHAM: That's actually just the way it is. And when they say a request is a request, and you have to request those days off, most likely, you won't get those days off. But me personally, I will - I actually have to go out of my way if I know about these dates in advance, I'll have to go, like, a month in advance to request these days off before I even get them off. If I do it, like, two weeks before, like the store policy says, I'll never get these days off.

MARTIN: Let me ask, Marilyn, how common is that? And we've reported on this previously. As we've said that there have been a number of cities where there have been job actions, in fact, at fast-food places, like the one that Amere works in, where people have complained. Mainly what you're hearing about is the pay levels. People want to have pay above the minimum wage. But is this also a part of it, and how common is this that part-time workers really have no control over their schedules?

GEEWAX: This is a problem we hear more and more about because these schedules have become more erratic as companies use more and more part-time workers. You know, when I was in college, I worked in a department store in retail and most of the workers were full-time workers. I was just the icing on the cake.

I'd come in after school or maybe work a special shift, but there was a steadiness to the schedule. Now, employers are trying to get by with all part-time workers, so the scheduling becomes more complicated. You have to have somebody working four hours, somebody working three hours. By the time you put it all together, it's a very hard schedule to predict.

MARTIN: Is this just poor management? I mean, why wouldn't you give people preferred schedules? In fact, you have to note that many of the large employers of part-time workers that you often hear about, like Starbucks or McDonald's, advertise the fact that they have flexible schedules.

GEEWAX: In the '80s and '90s, we heard a lot about just-in-time inventory. That companies didn't want to have products just sitting on the shelf, they wanted whatever they needed for production to show up just in time. And now it's a just-in-time workforce that has become the goal. There was a study done recently that showed in New York City among retail workers only 17 percent had regular hours.

Virtually everyone is a part-time worker with these erratic schedules. So it has become a very big trend in business to move towards all part-time workers in retail and restaurants. If your part-time work makes it very, very difficult to plan anything for your own education, that's a negative for the economy.

MARTIN: Amere, I wanted to ask you this question. Why do you think people should be concerned about this?

GRAHAM: I feel if anyone cares about the next generation, if it cares about the young people's future and their own, they should actually join in and help with this 'cause the economy's in trouble, our future's in trouble. Businesses don't know this, but they're also in trouble as well, because they're going about free marketing business all wrong.

MARTIN: There are some who would be listening to our conversation who would say, if this job doesn't suit your life then you should just quit, why don't you quit and find another job? I mean what would you say to that?

GRAHAM: There are thousands of fast food and retail jobs that take up this country and what it looks like in the near future is that these kinds of part-time jobs are going to be the most popular jobs, so rather than finding a new job, why not try to make our own workplace better rather than trying to find another. What's wrong with that?

MARTIN: I still want to press the question - some people would say, look, if this is not a job that allows you to do the other things you need to do, like go to school, why don't you quit?

GRAHAM: Because we're stuck in that job. People have bills to pay, people have children to take care of, people have gas to put in their cars, it's not that easy to just go out and find time to find another job when you're stuck in the first one that's helping you barely just get by by the skin of your teeth when you're making negative income.

GEEWAX: Wednesday is the fourth anniversary of the minimum wage being stuck at the rate that it is right now. It's 7.25 an hour. That's what Amere makes. And Congress has been reluctant to raise that rate - businesses certainly don't want it, they say that it would make it more difficult for them to increase hiring. But for people who are working, they're really - Amere tells me he's been working two years without a raise, so an awful lot of people are still at that 7.25 an hour no matter how long they work.

MARTIN: Amere, we're going to talk about budgeting in our next segment. McDonald's - they have a budget tool that they have online from employees and I wanted to know if you've looked at it and what you make of it.

GRAHAM: I've looked at it and I take great high offense to it because it's completely inaccurate. And that budget is meant to help their employees, but what they didn't do is actually go out of their way to ask employees what kind of budget would actually help them, because the way they set up the bill, they left out heating, billing, gas, how to pay for food, childcare. Where did all that come from? Because the way they have that budget set up, unfortunately, the average McDonald's person makes less than $15,000 a year, so that budget is completely inaccurate. It doesn't make any sense.

MARTIN: Amere Graham is a part-time McDonald's employee. He's a 18-year-old high school graduate and he was kind enough to join us from Milwaukee. Marilyn Geewax is NPR senior business editor. She was kind enough to join us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GEEWAX: Good to be with you, Michel.

>>GRAHAM Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.