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Despite Economic Recovery, Millions Of Workers Stuck In Part-Time Jobs


From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. The great recession officially ended in June of 2009 more than five years ago. Since then, the economy has created millions of jobs, but it's still not enough. Take a close look at employment figures, and you find that of all the people the government labels as full-time workers 6 to 11 percent of those are only full-time because they're cobbling together two or more part-time jobs. And that's the focus of our cover story today. The federal government says Stephanie Green is a full-time worker. She lives in San Diego with her four children aged 10 to 19. Two years ago, she divorced from an abusive husband, but that left her temporarily without a roof over her head. She lived in shelters until she found a job with a company that runs parking garages.

STEPHANIE GREEN: And I just went and explained to them, like, this is my situation. You know, I'm currently homeless, and I'm trying to get myself on my feet for me and my kids.

VIGELAND: Initially, the parking company gave her full-time hours. But it cut the entire staff down to part-time last year, citing the cost of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Now, Green works three jobs - the parking company plus two jobs in security, all of which provides barely enough to make ends meet.

GREEN: I do have Section 8, which does help tremendously with my rent. But they also went up at the beginning of the year. And so I can barely pay - I can pay the rent, but it's the other bills that I have that I have to struggle with.

VIGELAND: She attended a for-profit school that she says provided a worthless education but left her with about $7,000 in debt. Her calendar is her lifeline.

GREEN: There's been a couple of times where I have to go to one job in the morning, and I usually take my other uniforms in a backpack, change real quick, go to the other job right after. There's been days where I leave the house Sunday morning to go to one job, and I usually don't get back home till maybe Monday evening to see my kids.

VIGELAND: Her older children provide childcare for the younger siblings. Douglas Hunter has one 16-year-old daughter and no one else to help care for her. He's 53, a widower, lives in Chicago and after a long career on factory floors, has spent the last five years working part-time for nine bucks an hour at a local McDonald's.

DOUGLAS HUNTER: Trying to take care of my daughter, provide for her, have a roof over her head, that means I bring in like $360 every two weeks. And the rent is $775. And so it's a bit of a struggle. It's a struggle every day, all day, you know. And it's rough.

VIGELAND: Hunter tells us the McDonald's job gives him 30 hours a week, sometimes 20. He fills in the gaps with odd jobs when he can get them but worries about not being home for his daughter when she's not in school. He scoffs at the notion that the economy is recovering.

HUNTER: I was scrapping and scraping and stressing before the recession. I was scrapping and scraping and stressing during the recession. And I'm still scrapping and scraping and stressing. Nothing has changed for me.

VIGELAND: None of this is a surprise to economist Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago, who studies how part-time jobs are affecting the economy. I asked her how the federal government determines who is a part-time worker.

SUSAN LAMBERT: The Census Bureau - the Bureau of Labor Statistics both ask people how many hours do you usually work or how many hours did you work last week. And if you say 35 or more, they classify you as being a full-time worker. Now that doesn't mean that you have a full-time job, but that you're a full-time worker. If you've - report a number less than 35 hours, they ask you why. And the people give a range of reasons. And only if they say I'm working less than 35 hours because I couldn't find a full-time job or my employer cut my hours, are they classified as being what we call involuntary part-time. And, in fact, in the other studies, instead, what people are asked is a work hour preference - would you like to continue to work the same hours for the same pay, more hours for more pay, fewer hours for less pay. And when people are asked that question, a much larger proportion of people say I would like more hours for more pay.

VIGELAND: Can you talk to us a little bit about what that part-time employment looks like now that maybe it didn't look like before - that there are new tactics the employers use to basically keep worker hours down?

LAMBERT: So one of them is posting schedules with very little advance notice, just maybe a day or two in front of the work week. Changing schedules once posted makes it very difficult to arrange anything when you don't know when you're going to work. People will work different numbers of hours week to week, different days of the week, different shifts and so employers are turning to employees to fill in for short time slots during peak demand. And if they don't use you, they'll send you home early. They have people waiting on call more often so that you wait to call in to see if you're going to work that day. So fluctuating, unpredictable hours and then also what you mentioned before, the issue of a lot of people aren't getting enough hours. So even when they're that flexible and they're that available, they are really scrambling to get enough hours to earn a decent living.

VIGELAND: What does all this mean for the overall economy when, you know, you have all these people working part-time jobs with weird hours, and no predictability, does that have a greater impact?

LAMBERT: On the one hand, a lot of people are saying that any job is better than no job. And if we don't have these part-time jobs, and we concentrate the hours on a smaller percentage of workers, well, then we'll have higher rates of unemployment. On the other hand, and I tend to be in this other camp, is that I think that there is evidence to support that the way the economy is really grown is by a strong middle class. That when we have a middle-class who can afford goods, durable goods, and who are living beyond just trying to make their rent and feed their family, that that group of workers is what grows the economy in the United States.

VIGELAND: Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago. And Stephanie Green, the mother of four we heard from earlier, well, she's hoping to enroll in an EMT class this fall adding to the calendar that already features three jobs.

GREEN: Oh, yes, I'll find some way to do it, and I will go ahead and make it work. You know, I mean, I've struggled a lot but it's like, you know, just keep my faith up and you know, everything will work itself out.

VIGELAND: As goes Stephanie Green, perhaps goes the U.S. economy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.