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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Flexible Work Hours and Part-Time Work Hours are Not the Same

Flexible Work Hours and Part-Time Work Hours are Not the Same

Saturday, 20 April 2013 08:01

The NYT had a useful piece on the increase in the number of people working at part-time jobs who would like full-time employment. This is an important measure of under-employment in the downturn that is missed when people just look at the unemployment rate. Since part-time workers often lack benefits like health care insurance, this can be an especially important issue.

However the piece concludes by equating part-time work with flexibility for employers. This is not true. There is no direct relationship between part-time work and flexible hours. A worker who has a regular shift from 1:00-5:00, Monday to Friday, provides no more flexibility to an employer than a worker who works from 9:00-5:00 the same days.

The flexibility comes from the fact that part-time workers are likely to have less bargaining power than full-time workers and therefore may have to accept changes in work hours on short notice. But this is a different issue than being employed part-time.

Comments (7)Add Comment
You are a good teacher
written by JaaaaayCeeeee, April 20, 2013 8:54
You get to the heart of the issue in few words.
Complex Issue
written by aecon, April 20, 2013 10:08
I agree that a lack of unionization is at the heart of part-time workers' frustrated underemployment but I also believe that we need to address why, in practice, "flexible" and "part-time" are nearly synonymous. As someone who worked in retail part-time (but would have preferred full-time), I was simply not offered a regular shift. I had to call my manager every Wednesday to be told my hours for the following week--hours which fluctuated from 10 to 36--and often was put "on call" for up to two days per week. Had my employers been forced to adhere to fixed shifts, they may not have hired part-time workers at all but may have opted to hire as few full-time workers as possible (to cut down on the cost of benefits that are offered to longer-term employees). Part-time work at that job, precisely because it was not a dialogue, was unequivocally flexible.
Flexible Work Hours are a Premium Service that Corporations Get for Free
written by Last Mover, April 20, 2013 10:36
To put this in context consider the how prices charged for shipping delivery services are directly related to how fast the item is delivered on short notice. For example next day express delivery can command prices many times that of delivery spread over a few more days.

Of course free market sychophants will smugly observe that's how markets work, something that cost more to be delivered must recover a higher price to recover that cost.

If that's true, why doesn't it work in labor markets as well? If someone is expected to be on short notice call essentially 24/7, why aren't premium wages paid for such services the same way premium prices are collected for them?

The answer of course is that market power, rather than effective competition, works in favor of corporations to easily collect (and overcollect) increases in shipping cost due to short notice and fast delivery. Yet the same market power is exploited to underpay employees on flex time for providing a premium service for which the corporation captures the value instead of the employee.

(Hint: Claims that competition among a surplus of unemployed workers forces employees to accept low wages for premium services provided is incorrect for two reasons. One is corresponding prices for output services don't fall as well due to "competition". Two is the effective reduction in real wages has not resulted in more workers hired which is more than offset by stagnant aggregate demand.)
Question for Dean: Does inequality reduce demand?
written by A Populist, April 20, 2013 11:10
Stiglitz asserts that inequality is holding back the recovery. Krugman says he is not convinced "on the issue of whether inequality is a key factor holding back recovery."

Well, Krugman's comment seems a little hedged to me, but whatever.

It seems to me that if we were to somehow pass legislation raising the minimum wage annually until it reached something like $15 or more (in today's dollars), that we would see a dramatic decrease in debt among the lower income workers, more consumption, and (over time) an increased ability for some of those workers to "purchase leisure".

It seems to me that all those factors would help reduce unemployment in the long run. Am I wrong? Is Krugman wrong? Is it simply too hard to prove?

I don't disagree with transfer payments, infrastructure spending, etc. But if we could improve the economy in a way which doesn't raise taxes or increase debt, it would be very popular, and politically more feasible.

Am I missing something?
Part-time does mean flexibility in many situations.
written by Darren M, April 21, 2013 6:29
I think you may have missed on this one. The your example and the assumption that part-time employment does not provide flexibility is dependent on two factors: a workplace with a very even work/traffic flow, and a rather stable 9 to 5 business. If either of those factors changes, let alone both, then the criticism falls apart.

Let's assume that we do have some 9 to 5 business, and that they have 200 hours of employment (5 full-time employees) but they get 70% of their business between 1pm and 5pm. If they have 5 full-time employees, they only have 5 people to handle their traffic in the afternoon. If they have three full-time employees and four 20 hour part-time employees on the floor.

This is a large reason why retailers have so many part-time employees. It isn't just because they are cheap and want to avoid paying benefits (there are several major retailers who pay benefits to part-timers), but no matter how exceptional that one full-time employee can't ring a register and help a customer find something at the same time. It also means businesses can flex up when employees go on vacation or when businesses pick up.

This isn't true of just retail. Think about libraries, doctor's offices with extended hours, or any of a number of places. I personally wish the local DMV would hire a couple part-time employees to work 10am-2pm because they always have their lowest staff levels at the point where they have their highest traffic flow.

written by watermelonpunch, April 22, 2013 6:03
Are there statistics on the number of companies/jobs that offer benefits to part-time workers?
I would imagine it to be quite low, since many FULL time jobs don't offer medical insurance nor paid vacation, for that matter.

I can think of one person who works through an employment agency at the same full time job for 9 months now. And it's not just the employment agency that doesn't offer medical insurance benefits... even the direct full time employees of the company itself have no medical insurance package, only dental.

I've often wondered how common this might be.

I once interviewed a couple years ago for a part time job at The Picture People (the mall chain of portrait studios)... and they offered some kind of medical package to part time employees. That was possibly the first time I'd ever heard of that. So I can't imagine it's common.

But I'd sure like to know what the real statistics on these things might be.
written by Darren M, April 24, 2013 10:32
The best statistic I could find was this one from a Kaiser study:

"In 2012, 28% of all firms that offer health benefits offer them to part-time workers, a significant increase from the 16% reported in 2011 but similar to the 25% reported in 2010 (Exhibit 2.5). Firms with 200 or more workers are more likely to offer health benefits to part-time employees than firms with 3 to 199 workers (45% vs. 28%) (Exhibit 2.7). "

There is also a chart on exhibit 2.7, and in many cases government employees who are part-time will get some benefits. While still the exception rather than the rule, 45% of the larger employees, combined with the benefits often built in to many public sector part-time positions means that it isn't uncommon. It also looks like a number of retailers (Lowe's, Costco, Whole Foods, Barnes and Noble, Walgreens, JC Penneys, among others) offer benefits to part-time permanent employees.


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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.