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Sluggish Economy Relies More On Part-Time Workers


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the past few years, the definition of work has changed in parts of the American economy. More and more restaurants and retailers have half as many full-time workers as they used to and twice as many part-time. They save money on pay and benefits, and they use new technology to schedule part-timers based on the season, the time of day or even on the temperature.

But while some people prefer part-time work, many struggle with less money, fewer benefits and unpredictable hours, which can make juggling kids, classes or other jobs difficult. If you work part-time, tell us: What don't we understand about your situation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, members of the editorial boards of two major newspapers. One endorsed a candidate for president, one didn't. We'll find out why and why not. But first, part-time America. As we often do on work issues, we turn to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, who joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And you just wrote a piece that starts with a story about Shannon Harden(ph), a 50-year-old woman who works for a grocery chain I confess I'd never heard of called Fresh & Easy. Tell us about her.

GREENHOUSE: Shannon is 50. She used to work for a construction company. When things went - she was an office assistant for a construction company. When things got bad, she got laid off, and she was looking for a job, so she found a job with this new-fangled grocery company in California.

It started up five years ago. It tries to be very cool. It has, you know, solar power for its headquarters. It has - doesn't have all these additives in the food. Anyway, but Shannon, you know, wants a full-time job, but she only gets part-time hours. Many weeks she's only given 25 hours, 27 hours. Once in a while when someone's on vacation or sick, they'll give her, you know, 32 hours a week.

And she says that after nearly five years on the job, you know, she makes $10.90 an hour. She often works 20, 25, 27 hours a week, and she just says that's not enough to support herself. And she asks for more hours, as is the case with retail workers at some other places. And they told me that, you know, instead of the store owners, the store managers giving them more hours, they often just hire more people so they keep everyone at 15, 20, 25 hours instead of giving, you know, all these workers who want to work 30, 35, 40 hours so they can support themselves and their families enough hours to work on.

And Shannon Harden, you know, this worker just outside San Diego, California, told me that, you know, she earns so little she only goes to the movies about once a year. She says she can't afford cable, so she doesn't even own a TV. She told me that she has a tooth that's falling apart, and she can't afford dental work because she just can't afford the more than $1,000 for a crown.

And, you know, I focused on her, Neal, in my story because I really wanted to find someone who has involuntarily been forced to work part-time and as a result of that feels really economically squeezed, even though she's perfectly talented and perfectly willing to work a 35-, 40-hour week.

CONAN: And because of these unpredictable hours, if you're not available when the boss calls, you're not going to get as much work next week.

GREENHOUSE: There's this big trend going on in the economy that many Americans don't recognize, that, you know, many employers try harder than ever to adjust the number of workers at any given hour to the number of, you know, people at a McDonald's or a Taco Bell at noon or 1 P.M. or 2 P.M.

They, you know, as more people come in around 11:30 or noon, they ramp up the number of employees. Then around 1:30, 2, they ramp down the number of employees. And they want to have a lot of part-timers on hand, like, to fill this hole, to fill that hole, to fill this hole.

So there's this elaborate, impressive new software for scheduling employees that really makes it easy to, you know, track your sales, track your number of customers and tie that to the number of employees. So in many ways, Neal, it's great, you know, for these companies to have all these part-time workers; you plug them into that hole, you plug them into that hole, you have lots of flexibility.

If you have a busy Friday evening shift, you're a retailer, you just plug someone into that hole. But for these workers, it makes their lives very difficult at times. One, they often don't have enough hours. Two, their hours are often jumping around, changing week to week. And three, there's now this weird system called call-ins, where, you know, some workers I interviewed said they'd be assigned just two or three days of work a week.

And you know you have to work those shifts. And then they'd be given two or three call-in days, meaning you wake up, roll out of bed at 8, 8:30, you call your boss to say do you need me today to come in? And sometimes they say yes, and if they say yes we need you, you better not have scheduled anything that day, you better come in.

And if they say they need you - and sometimes they don't need you, so you get nothing, no pay that day. And a lot of workers I interviewed complain that, you know, this call-in system, you know, makes their lives difficult. It makes it hard for them to get a second job. It makes it hard to just arrange to see friends or make a doctor's appointment because they don't know whether they're going to have to work on specific days.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times about part-time America and the increased numbers of people working part time, how that affects their lives. Of course, we do understand some people prefer to work part time, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. What don't we understand if you're one of those part-timers. We'll start with Lawson and Lawson on the line with us from Paducah, Kentucky.

LAWSON: Hi, Neal, first-time caller, longtime listener. Thank you very much for your show.

CONAN: Thanks for both. Go ahead, please.

LAWSON: I am - I'm an hourly employee working for a very big restaurant chain. I'm lucky to get 30, 35 hours a week, but I'm still hourly. And my problem is that I feel so trapped in this hourly cycle. I've been trying to get to school, finally got an associate's, but being able to afford to get back and get the bachelor's is the trap. It's - it has a gravity to it that seems to keep you there or suck you in.

CONAN: And are you in one of these flexible scheduling situations, where even if you did start to go to class you might find yourself forced to choose between work and school?

LAWSON: That's exactly what I had to do because I don't know what the next schedule, next week's schedule is going to bring until Friday. I have no way of knowing when I can schedule for classes.

CONAN: And you've got to pay the rent.

LAWSON: Exactly, and the gas to get to college since I live about 45 minutes away. So it would be a double pay cut if I had to take time off of work and pay gas to get to school.

CONAN: And would you mind telling us how much you make per hour?

LAWSON: I work two different job codes. So sometimes I get $10, sometimes I get $12.

CONAN: And do you get benefits with that?

LAWSON: Luckily, yes, that's the one good thing about the company I work for is that they do give benefits to all hourly employees.

CONAN: And do they have full-time employees at that restaurant?

LAWSON: Full-time, salary would be what I would call it, but no, they try to keep people away from 40 hours as often as possible.

CONAN: It does sometimes seem - I've worked for places in the past who seemed that their entire goal of their human resources department was to have no one eligible for health insurance.


LAWSON: Yes, but luckily not me. Like I said, they are good on benefits but bad on giving you hours.

CONAN: Well Lawson, we thank you for the phone call and your loyal listening over the years. Good luck.

LAWSON: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And Steven Greenhouse, that's a situation that I think describes a lot of people in your story.

GREENHOUSE: Yes, Lawson it's great you have an employer who provides you with good benefits. That's unusual for an employer, a service-sector employer that has a lot of part-timers. But I'm surprised that your employer doesn't accommodate people when they want to go to school.

I know a lot of employers, you know, if you could tell them two weeks or three weeks in advance, look, I have classes Tuesdays and Thursday mornings from 9 A.M. to 11 A.M., they can usually accommodate you. And the fact that they don't accommodate you on that is a problem.

I should say, there - just to be clear, there are like 25 million part-time workers in the U.S. economy, nearly one out of - more than one out of six workers. About one-third of those part-time workers wish that they could work full-time. And the number of these so-called involuntary part-timers has doubled since 2006.

So there are, like, four million more workers now than there were in 2006 who have been forced to work part time even though they would want to work full time. And I think the trend is a lot of employers, as Lawson said, you know, prefer to have lots of part-timers because you can pay them less. You generally provide them less benefits.

A statistic I use in my story, Neal, is that in service-sector industries, the typical full-time worker gets $17.18 an hour, including the value of benefits, whereas the typical part-time worker gets $10.92 cents an hour. So the full-time worker gets 57 percent more an hour.

I think that's a big reason, you know, more and more employers are saying, hey, let's hire part-time workers, it gives us more flexibility, and it saves us a bundle on wages and benefits.

CONAN: Let's get Mark(ph) on the line calling from San Francisco. Mark, you're on the air, go ahead please.

MARK: Yes, I'm a former McDonald's and Pizza Hut franchise owner. So I had McDonald's franchises, two Pizza Hut franchises and at one time up to 10 other independent mom-and-pops. And I employed the exact opposite strategy. I employed mostly all full-time employees. I only offered - was only able to offer benefits to management, but I filled in my gaps in my staffing needs with part-timers, but I went with an all full-time employee workforce.

I had virtually zero turnover in the seven and a half years I owned one of my franchises, where typically at McDonald's an annual turnover could be 300, 350 percent. Now, my turnover was probably less than 5 percent realistically. I had people for years.

I saved on advertising costs. I didn't have to go through interviewing, hiring, you know, onboarding, exiting. And I just - I find that that works a lot better. Give a smaller group of people full-time employment works better economically for the franchise than trying to balance a whole handful of part-timers who didn't last anyway.

CONAN: Steven Greenhouse, he's right, there are costs associated with all that turnover and with training and other ancillary costs to those part-time employees.

GREENHOUSE: Absolutely. You know, Mark has one vision that some employers embrace, really use - you know, hire part-timers, treat them well, give them good benefits, they'll be loyal to you, they'll work hard for you. And that's - some people call that the high-road strategy. Mark, I'm flattering you.

MARK: I'm sorry to interrupt. I was going to add one more thing I did also is I - typical of McDonald's franchise or Pizza Hut will give their workers maybe one shirt or two shirts and aprons. I gave my full-time employees four sets. I also installed washer and dryers in the back of each of my units, provided the laundry soap and allowed them to come in and wash their uniforms and aprons so that my employees always had a fresh, clean uniform, and that was on my dime.

So I'm telling you, that formula works. You're going to reduce your turnover that way.

CONAN: Well Mark, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: And as Steven Greenhouse suggests, if that's the high-road strategy, there's another road that other people take. More about that after we come back from a short break, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're talking about part-time America. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the recent transformation in retail and hospitality toward part-time workers, a transformation, as Steven Greenhouse explains, that's being propelled by technology. More about that in a few minutes when we talk about one computer program that schedules workers based on store traffic, time of year, even the temperature outside.

If you work part time, call and tell us what don't we know about your situation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Steven Greenhouse is our guest. His piece "A Part-Time Life As Hours Shrink and Shift" ran last month in the Times. There's a link to it at our website. He's also the author of the book "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." And just speaking about that caller, Steve, we have this email from Dan(ph) in Albion, Iowa.

Another tactic seems to be very popular in the Chicago area: Hire only through temp agencies, where workers receive no benefits for at least 90 days. However, on day 89, the worker is told not to return to work. Often they can reapply for the same job after a week and may be rehired on the spot again with no benefits.

I am myself grossly underemployed in Iowa, I fear, because I'm 60 years old. It doesn't matter that I have lots of skills and energy to do the job, the ageism keeps me out of the full-time workforce. If that earlier caller, the former McDonald's and Pizza Hut franchiser, is the high road, maybe that's the low road.

GREENHOUSE: Yes, I was saying before the break, Neal, that, you know, there are high-road employers like Mark who treat their workers well, who give them lots of hours, who make them feel good about their job and themselves, and they're very loyal, and they work very hard.

Then there's another group of employers that many economists call low-road employers, and they'll just give them 15, 12, 18 hours a week. They might not give benefits. And there's huge turnover with these workers. You know, with - their schedules often change week to week, and that makes it really hellish if you have, you know, college, or if you have to arrange child care or if you have to take care of, you know, an aging parent.

So I interviewed this terrific professor for my story at MIT, Zainab Than(ph), and she argues that these so-called low-road employers that employ all these people for 15, 18, 12 hours, that they - she insists that they're - it's silly of them. She says there's too much turnover. Your workers don't work as hard. You don't have as much loyalty from them. And she tells retailers you'd be much better off to hire a much higher percentage of full-time workers.

Now what Dan just said about this - and it sounds almost as if employers are gaming the system. They say, you know, we're hiring you from a temp agency, after 90 days they'll make you a full-time regular worker, yet boom after 89 days, you're laid off. You know, employers are - it's perfectly legal. One might not say it's - one might say it's not usually ethical.

You know, if you have a good worker who does a great job for 89 days, should you lay them off just so you could start with another temp and not provide them with benefits? And I'm sure employers will say I'm playing by the rules, I have up to 90 days to keep them, I'm in a very competitive business, I need to keep my costs down, other employers - my competitors - are doing the same thing.

So I think what many employers say is perfectly and kosher, a lot of employees like in Dan's position will say I'm really getting the short end of the stick.

CONAN: And it's interesting, part of the reason you cite, obviously the bad times we've been having these past several years, but also the competition, and you point, particularly, to Wal-Mart.

GREENHOUSE: Well, you know, Wal-Mart is the 800-pound or, you know, $200-, $300-, $400-billion-a-year gorilla. You know, it is by far the - the nation's - by far the world's largest retailer. And in researching my story, Neal, I interviewed a retail analyst who said that it was really with the huge expansion of Wal-Mart in the 1990s, with its low-cost, you know, fiercely competitive brand and attitude that many employers said we have to do everything we possibly can to reduce our costs, to remain competitive with Wal-Mart.

And one thing, one practice they really followed is hiring more and more part-time workers because it enables them to generally reduce their wages per hour, the benefits per hour, and it gives them more flexibility, as well.

CONAN: So instead of having one or two full-time people at the check-out line at the drug store, for example, you'd have one part-time worker helping people self-check-out at the drug store.

GREENHOUSE: Yes, something I wasn't able to work into my (unintelligible) is I interviewed the manager of a Target store. And he said, you know, imagine if you have 10 cash registers up front, and you have 12 full-time cash - 12 full-time workers to work the daytime shift. And he says, if three of those full-time workers call in sick one day, then you're in deep trouble.

He says if you have 20 part-time workers to work those 10 registers, and three call in sick, well, you have 17 others to, you know, 17 others to try to call in. So I think a lot of store managers feel it's better for them, they look better to their employer, they're not going to have - you know, they'll always have enough workers on hand to plug in holes, if they have a huge number of part-time workers to draw from.

And again, you know, those part-time workers often say I really need to work full-time, it's really hard for me to, you know, raise my family. You know, a lot of workers nowadays, of course, are single mothers, and it's really, really, you know, difficult for a single parent to try to raise a kid or two on, you know, 20 hours of work a week times $10 an hour, which is, you know, $200 a week or just $10,000 a year.

And what's happening, often, is the taxpayer ends up supporting these jobs in ways, you know, through food stamps, through welfare, through Medicaid - and the employers say we're just doing what the law allows us. We're trying our darnedest to remain competitive against Wal-Mart, Target, other low-cost companies. And, you know, they'll say if the employers - we offer good jobs. And they'll say if the employees don't like it, they can go across the street if they want.

CONAN: Let's go next to Nick(ph), and Nick's on the line with us from La Crosse in Wisconsin.


CONAN: Hi, Nick.

NICK: So I'm a full-time student, a biology major, and a part-time manager at Taco Bell. And my comment was that, well, Taco Bell likes to hire younger people, mainly because they're part time, and those part-time workers fill a lot of positions that, you know, when productivity is high, noon and dinner, lunch and dinner rush time. And it works out well for us and the employees.

CONAN: So you think it's working out for a lot of people?

NICK: I think it's working out for, at least, my store, yes, and...

CONAN: And again, most of those are younger people.

NICK: Yeah, and, you know, those younger people who start off as part-time employees, if they prove themselves to be valuable to the company. They quickly turn into full-time workers and then turn into managers, which is what happened to me after just a year.

CONAN: So this is the way to go, at least in your company?

NICK: Well, you can't say that, you know. There's differences. You should probably try and focus on having part-time workers who can work only part time and hire full-time workers that can only work full time. I think that would be a good solution.

CONAN: Nick, thanks very much for the call.

GREENHOUSE: I think what Nick says is true, Neal. You know, there are a lot of employers who have, you know, lunchtime surges and dinner surges, and they just want workers to work three or four hours. And there are a lot of, you know, high school students or college students who need extra spending money, and they're happy to work, you know, four hours a day, three or four days a week.

And, you know, unfortunately, you know, there are a lot of unemployed people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who might like those jobs, especially if they offered more hours, but, you know, many of these employers really don't consider anyone but high school or college kids.

I think someone like Mark, you know, who used to - who was the McDonald's franchisee, would say - he'd often be enthusiastic about hiring a good 30-, 40-year-old who would be willing to work full time and be dedicated to him, rather than a bunch of, you know, high school kids or college kids who you just plug in for three hours here and there.

CONAN: As we mentioned, part of what's driving this trend is powerful new software that helps companies streamline their staff scheduling. Kronos is one company that specializes in these sorts of workforce management technologies. Their CEO Aron Ain joins us now by phone from Chelmsford, Massachusetts. I should say NPR is among the many companies that uses Kronos products. Nice to have you on the program today.

ARON AIN: Thank you, happy to be here.

CONAN: And what kind of software are we talking about? I guess people used to do this on, what, Excel spreadsheets.

AIN: Exactly. So what the software does is it takes into account things like skills, cost, availability, preference, seniority, and uses a form of artificial intelligence to put the right person, the employee, in the right place at the right time.

CONAN: And this does it more or less automatically. A manager might have to work half an hour, two hours to do this properly. This does it much quicker.

AIN: Yeah, typically what would happen, depending on the size of a store, it might take two hours to as much as eight hours a week for a manager to do the schedule manually. Now it can be done in a matter of minutes, and it produces more effective schedule.

CONAN: And more effective, quarter hour by quarter hour.

AIN: Some do it quarter of hour by quarter hour, some half hour by half hour, hour by hour. It depends on how the particular user of the product chooses to set up the system.

CONAN: What are the variables they can plug into this?

AIN: They plug in things. As I said, you take into account the skill of the person. You want to make sure you have, you know, someone working in the shoe department who knows shoes. You want to plug in availability. You don't want to schedule someone when the employee told you, I can't work that time; I have to pick up my child from daycare, or I am a student; I have class.

You can plug in what their preferences are. In some cases, where there's collective bargaining agreements or just company rules, you can plug in there the seniority where there might be a preference around that.

CONAN: There was - interesting. Steve Greenhouse, in his story, had one - I think it was a Jamba Juice outlet that was plugging in the temperature. When it gets hotter, people buy more juice.

AIN: Yeah, it's very typical. So they'll actually take into account using the software to, say, all 52 weeks, and they'll look back for their previous five years, and they'll say what the demand was on the Friday before Memorial Day at a grocery store. And you want to make sure, in that really high-volume time, you have the right number of employees there so the customer experience is favorable and they'll want to come back and continue to shop at your particular location.

CONAN: And, similarly, if there's a 3 P.M. slump, just about every day, you don't want to have too many people you're paying.

AIN: That's right. You move away from a model which I call - instead of a just-in-case scheduling method where you're just putting more than you need just in case you have a certain volume, it's really more focused on a more exact process to make sure you have the right people in the right place at the right time.

CONAN: So I guess we're all accustomed to the idea that, oh, places used to hire extra workers part time for the Christmas rush or people who work in the mini golf industry for summertime, obvious things like that. Now you're thinking about Tuesdays at 11:15.

AIN: That's right. Well, the rush still happens around the holiday time. Customers, companies that use our product will go increase their volume of staff 20 to 50 percent around the holidays. It's just how you schedule those because the volume goes up during that period.

CONAN: And, Steve Greenhouse, as you said in your story, these kinds of streamlining operations can make a huge difference.

GREENHOUSE: Well, they can - so I interviewed Aron Ain for my story. He was very, very helpful. He knows the stuff amazingly well. I'm very impressed with Kronos' software. You know, I interviewed one client of Kronos, Jamba Juice, who said that, you know, once they started using this, you know, highly sophisticated software, it enabled them to reduce their labor costs by 4 or 5 percent.

They achieved, for instance, that - you know, think of Starbucks or Jamba Juice. They might see that, you know, there's a drop-off in business between 2:15 and 2:30. So instead of keeping employees to 2:30, they might, you know, cut their shift 15 minutes earlier, and that way they could save, you know, a significant bit on labor costs if you multiply that to times one week times a whole year times, you know, thousands of employees.

And as Aron was saying, you know, it used to take some managers two, four, six, eight hours, you know, over their Excel spreadsheets, giving themselves huge headaches, getting brain teasers, figuring out how to schedule their 50 employees. Now, with this sophisticated software, they can do it in five minutes or 10 minutes or half an hour. And that saves lots of headaches, and it saves lots of money and time for the companies.

CONAN: Is there somewhere else to go with this, Aron Ain?

AIN: Well, I would say that the part that I would add to that, while there's the issues that we talked about around the employee, one of the big advantages of this system is it enhances the customer experience. I really believe that deeply.

If you can have the right number of employees there at the right place at the right time, you're going to make sure the customers are taken care of more effectively. You move away from that just-in-case formula, and you move away from the formula where you had too few people there. And so it just tries to achieve what those managers were trying to achieve manually anyway, and it does it more effectively.

Number two, I'll say quickly that I believe this benefits employees as well because they tell their managers that they don't want to work a certain time or they're not available. And the managers used to try to remember all that in their head or little sticky notes in their little, small office and the retailer. It all goes in the system, so the employee is not put in a situation where they're scheduled when they didn't want to be there.

And then, lastly, I heard you talking about the Wal-Mart effect, you know, this tremendous pressure on retailers to watch their costs today so they can deliver better service, have better products. And this tool helps those retailers benefit. So I really believe this is a software package that benefits the customers, benefits the employees and benefits the company. Not perfect - nothing's perfect - but I think it's better than it was.

CONAN: I will fill out my timesheet from now on with greater respect.

AIN: OK. Good. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you, Aron Ain, CEO of Kronos. They create, among other things, software programs that help managers schedule employees, with us today from their office in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Shane, and Shane's on the line with us from Indianapolis.

SHANE: Hi. Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SHANE: Great. I'm a grad student, and currently I work three part-time jobs. And I really enjoy the idea that I can work two or three hours at one place and not be doing the same thing for a huge block of time. That's a huge benefit for me.

I would like to speak to two points. One is the - earlier, your guest mentioned about low-road employers who don't offer benefits for part-time workers and how the motivation goes down. And I see that in some of my co-workers with just their general work ethic.

They work generally much slower in the day, and these are people who are college freshmen who are working about 10 hours a week at this job; it's a music retailer. And so I do see the fact that because there's no benefits and there's not that much money per week coming in for them, there's not that much dedication to the work.

My second comment is with the scheduling system. A couple of years ago, I was working for the Starbucks Coffee Company and - when they brought in the auto scheduler. And there was a lot of things about that that were good and a lot of things that were bad. Like your other guest mentioned, getting time off was just right.

But it didn't take into account certain things like who works well with whom or who is distracted by whom at work. And the manager got into a habit of just pressing go with the software and not taking into account certain personal things; who's good at what time of day.

CONAN: Software will never do everything. So - but I think we do understand that.

SHANE: Sure. So there were certain things that actually started to not go so well with the auto scheduler. But there were some things that work really well with it.

CONAN: All right, Shane.

SHANE: Those are my two comments.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. And, Steven Greenhouse, this is something, no matter what the state of the economy, I guess, we should get used to.

GREENHOUSE: Yes. And I think the underlying point in my story about the growing use of part-time workers is that, you know, there's a - there are big, fundamental, underlying changes in the economy, and one of that is that we're moving more and more away from, you know, the good full-time jobs of yesterday that help people support a family to these more contention, precarious jobs, you know, part-time. Your schedule is shifting each week. It less stable. And it's harder for people to support themselves to raise a family with this new American job structure in such a way that they don't provide enough pay or enough stability.

CONAN: Steven Greenhouse, of the New York Times, with us from our bureau in New York. We thank him as always for his time. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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