This article features Dan Smith, president of HourDoc.com, G&A Partners’ proprietary time and labor tracking technology.
Deloris Jones worked full time for decades, with stints as a secretary, substitute teacher and tax preparer. Like many job seekers now, she wants another full-time position. But all she can find is part-time work.
She is searching for a stable job to help support her disabled husband and teenage son, but the vast majority of openings she finds at the Workforce Solutions office are part-time, typically 32 hours a week or less with no benefits. And competition is fierce, she said, recalling how a customer service call center opening drew scores of applicants eager for a shot at $15-an-hour part-time jobs.
Jones, on the hunt for a couple of months after leaving a grueling 32-hour-a-week job as a radio component assembler, is resigned to taking what she can find. At least for now.
“Part time is better than no time,” said Jones. And, she added, once you get your foot in the door, you might work your way up to full time.
She is like many frustrated workers facing a new economic reality this Labor Day. Full-time jobs with benefits are harder to get as companies cut costs by relying more heavily on part-time staffers. Employers save money on benefits and overtime pay, and they can use flexible scheduling software that lets them forecast the exact number of workers they need at any time of the day.
And they’re able to hire small armies of part-timers because so many people are searching for work.
Senior citizens are looking to supplement their Social Security or disability benefits while high school and college students are looking for extra income, said Gabriela Martinez, employment counselor with Workforce Solutions. Workers with few skills have few options beyond the low-skilled jobs available in retail, food service, housekeeping, health care and security services.
During a recession, it’s normal for employers to cut costs by cutting hours, said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project in Washington, D.C. When the recovery takes hold, employers typically revert back to full-time staffing.
But in the aftermath of the recent recession, a higher-than-usual higher proportion of workers continue to find themselves “involuntary part-time,” said Owens, using the commonly used economic term for the group of workers who want more hours but business conditions aren’t strong enough.
During the most recent recession, as many as 6.5 percent of all workers were considered involuntary part-time, said Owens. In June, the most recent data available, the proportion had dipped only slightly, to 5.2 percent.
That’s quite a bit higher than in past recoveries, said Owens, recalling how the involuntary part-time rate dipped to 2.4 percent in the go-go years following the recession of the early 1990s.
From her vantage point at the Workforce Solutions office as she tries to match employers with job seekers, Martinez sees companies trying to avoid paying overtime by hiring two to three people instead of one person to do a 40-hour-a-week job.
Employers can also avoid the cost of health insurance, she said. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers aren’t required to provide insurance to employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week.
Companies also tell Martinez that having more employees on their payrolls makes it easier to juggle schedules and put employees to work only when they’re needed. Entertainment venues do that, she said. If attendance at one sporting event is high, the company adds more workers.
Permanently on call
In Texas, 21.1 percent of all part-time workers last year worked part time because that’s all they could find, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, that new model of staffing has put millions of workers permanently on call as they wait for a text or email telling them when to report.
Scheduling software has become increasingly sophisticated and companies from fast-food vendors to retailers to hotels can control labor schedules much like they can control inventories, said Owens. They can project their busy times and slow times and staff accordingly.
But that creates havoc for employees with child-care responsibilities, or who go to school or string together a few part-time jobs, Owens said. These workers never know when they have to report for their next shift.
“It makes it impossible to plan life,” she said.
The frustration of just-in-time scheduling is gaining almost as much traction in labor organizing as low wages, Owens said.
The unpredictability also makes it difficult to pay the bills.
It really put a dent in Ronald Whitaker’s budget when his boss at Aramark told him to take three weeks off this spring because business was slow. Aramark operates the Panda Express restaurant at the University of Houston and Whitaker was working as a cook.
Whitaker, 48, relied on the $9 an hour he earned working between 31 and 39 hours a week. He scrambled to line up lawn-mowing jobs and went to day labor sites hoping to pick up work.
“I might get two to three jobs a week,” said Whitaker, who lives with his mother and needs his income to help with the rent, utilities and food. “I didn’t know when my next dollar would come.”
In a written statement, Aramark spokesman David Freireich in Philadelphia said the company “is committed to treating our employees fairly and with respect, which includes providing hourly associates with as stable a work schedule as possible and proper lead time about their shifts so they can plan and manage accordingly.”
In higher education, scheduling can vary based on class schedules, school breaks and exams, Freireich said. When the jobs are seasonal, employees accept the positions knowing that their work schedules will vary, he noted.
The image of part-time workers as teenagers continues to linger, said Tomika Greer, visiting assistant professor of human resource development in the College of Technology at the University of Houston. But it is not the reality, she said, as more adults are manning fast-food counters, making hotel beds and staffing call centers.
“There is almost an insensitivity of employers toward part-time work,” she said, adding that many employers don’t think of their part timers as adults who are depending on the low-wage jobs for their livelihood.
Many employers don’t seem to realize what a luxury it is to know how much you’ll earn every two weeks or how difficult it is to work the late shift at night and then report for duty first thing in the morning, she said. Or how difficult it is to juggle child care when the work schedule changes from day to day.
“Is it they don’t know or don’t care?” asked Greer. Or are employers delegating their dealings with part-time employees to the computers that are increasingly used to devise the work schedules?
Greer was referring to the proliferation of companies that use software to create work schedules by taking into account such factors as projected customer traffic flow and revenues. Just-in-time scheduling is designed for maximum efficiency and productivity, but it sometimes schedules workers for just a few hours at a time or for grueling back-to-back shifts.
Employers can “blame the computer,” she said, imagining that a supervisor can say: “Well, that’s how the computer scheduled you. I can’t do anything about it. If I change you, it will mess up someone else’s schedule.”
By passing off decision-making to technology, supervisors don’t have to look at their employees as people with real needs, Greer said.
Developers of the software point to the value of technology to manage business costs while meeting the needs of their customers.
Clients want to know how many employees they need at a particular time, said Daniel Smith, owner of HourDoc.com in Houston, which develops scheduling software for hourly workers. It is owned by G&A Partners, which provides human resources services for companies.
A manufacturing company could use the software to calculate how many workers it needs to make a certain number of widgets, Smith said.
A hotel can use it to calculate how many bellhops, food servers and housekeepers it needs based on the number of reservations it already has, as well as such other factors as sporting tournaments, school activities and changes in the weather that could cause a last-minute surge of rentals or cancellations.
The level of sophistication varies widely, he said. Some customers use historical data to forecast future labor needs; others rely on the “Oh, man, I’m really busy – I better call people” approach.
Some companies schedule months in advance; others do it a couple of days in advance. And some have to wait to see who can work, said Smith, recalling one client who had to wait for employees to provide their class schedules before any decisions could be made.
Smith said employers want to make sure they keep good employees and use the software with their work preferences in mind.
At agency’s mercy
Tangenquia Hubbard is hoping that one day she will be able to make a better life for herself and her 4-year-old daughter. But at the moment, she is at the mercy of the home-health agency that sends her to clients who need home health and personal care.
On good weeks, Hubbard can work about 30 hours in the job that pays $8.50 an hour. But it’s never predictable as patients come and go, due to loss of insurance coverage, death or scheduling changes.
“They can be at the doctor one day and you don’t work,” she said.
Hubbard, 21, is down to 17 hours a week, which has given her a renewed push to find a full-time position – preferably one that provides in-patient personal care and pays in the $10- to $12-an-hour range.
Eventually, Hubbard would like to go to community college to pick up more specialized skills. But first, she is just hoping for a better, more steady paycheck.
This article, written by Wooty Sixel, appeared in the August 31, 2014 print edition of the Houston Chronicle.