Part-Timers Make People Strategy Whole

Adding part-time positions to your organization can give you and employees much-needed flexibility.

By Adrienne Fox Aug 1, 2010
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August coverHistorically, part-time employees have been viewed as ugly stepchildren of the working world. The typical part-timer profile is someone who begrudgingly accepts a low-paying, dead-end job to pay the bills until he or she can find a full-time career opportunity.

Statistics bear this out. Since the 1950s, part-time employment has tripled in the United States, now accounting for more than one in six workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-timers are disproportionately female and low-wage workers, and since the start of the 2007 recession, the number of people taking part-time work for “economic reasons”—because they can’t find full-time employment—has risen.

However, the statistics belie a growing desire among highly educated professionals choosing parttime opportunities in their fields. Three separate studies conducted recently within the medical industry, for instance, found that the numbers of pediatricians, obstetricians and gynecologists, and pharmacists working part time have increased markedly in the last few years, with a large majority citing the need for better work/life balance.

Corporate professionals also seek such balance—but not all find it. A 2008 survey of 1,100 companies with more than 50 workers found that 41 percent allowed some employees and 13 percent allowed most or all employees to move back and forth between full- and part-time status at the same position or level. The 2008 National Study of Employers by the New York City-based Families and Work Institute also found that 53 percent of employers allowed some employees to reduce hours before full retirement and 25 percent allowed most or all to phase in retirement.

“Professional moms would be thrilled to lower their hours to spend more time with their children, and they don’t mind giving up benefits to achieve that work/life balance,” reports Alison Doyle, an About.com job search and employment subject matter expert based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Other part-time labor sources include near-retirees and older workers who don’t want to retire or are unable to retire but don’t want to commit to fulltime positions. Companies should leverage these workers and add them to their overall staffing strategy.”

Profile of a Part-Timer

Nina Schoch is a part-time manager at BioDiversity Research Institute, a wildlife conservation group in Gorham, Maine, where she began volunteering in 1998. Last year, the institute created a part-time position for Schoch, a wildlife veterinarian who works 20 hours a week as coordinator of the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation.

Schoch left her full-time position at the institute two years ago to spend more time with the son she adopted. She now works two eight-hour days while her son is in day care and fits in four more hours a week at home while he naps.

Schoch manages about seven seasonal workers in the summer and doesn’t find that being a part-timer hinders her ability to supervise and lead others. “I’ve been coordinating fieldwork for 10 years on a volunteer or paid basis,” she says. “Many fieldworkers return every summer, so we have a good rapport already and we all know our jobs. I also have effectively trained new fieldworkers as a part-time employee and as a part-time volunteer.”

More than 18 million people choose to work part time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women represent two-thirds of the part-time workforce, compared with 42 percent of full-time workers. Part-time work is increasingly sought by women in their prime earning years to balance work and family responsibilities— one of every five employed women ages 25 to 44 works a part-time schedule, compared with just one in 20 men in the same age group.

Part-time workers are as likely to have some college education as full-time workers— about 61 percent—according to the federal statistics, and work mainly in the service sector, with the highest concentration in education, health and social services, followed next by arts, entertainment, hospitality and food service, and retail trade.

In 2007, the bureau’s statisticians reported that part-time workers earned an approximate hourly rate of $18.98, compared with $22.06 for full-time workers.


Incorporating even a small portion of part-time positions into a workforce strategy can benefit employers as well. In a 2009 report by Corporate Voices for Working Families, a Washington, D.C.-based research firm, researchers studied the implementation of flexibility options, including the ability to work part time, at five organizations with at least 200 managers and 1,300 hourly workers who have flexible schedules. A small sample, about 130 employees who perform comparable jobs but who do not have flexibility, was included for comparison. The researchers found that engagement was 55 percent higher for hourly workers with flexibility than for those without, while turnover was half.

When used appropriately, having a part-time workforce can help address key staffing issues, such as covering hard-to-fill positions. Furthermore, creating part-time positions helps recruit, retain and engage valuable employees.

Defining Part Time

The distinctions between part time and full time have blurred, Doyle notes. “It used to be that full-time work meant working 40 hours a week with full benefits and part time meant working fewer than 40 hours a week with no benefits. Now, part time could be 32 or 35 or 20 hours a week with benefits prorated.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act does not define part- or full-time employment. For data purposes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies people working fewer than 35 hours weekly at their sole or primary jobs as part-timers.

Employers set their own hour thresholds, usually with the guidance of their benefits providers or through negotiated union contracts. “Employers set the level where they want it, usually at 30 hours per week,” notes Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project in New York City.

Wherever the line is drawn, however, part-timers going beyond it on a consistent basis can trigger benefits eligibility.

“It’s up to the employer to monitor the employee’s weekly hours to make sure any uptick in hours worked isn’t a pattern,” Ruckelshaus says. “Most employers require part-time employees to submit timecards even if the employee is exempt, or they ask the employee to get approval from their manager or HR before working the extra hours. If you notice the employee going over his hours, you need to have a discussion to determine if it is a temporary issue or a permanent one that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, several months down the line, the employee can argue rightly that she is due back benefits.”

Overtime protections only kick in at 40 hours a week. So, by definition, part-time workers aren’t eligible for overtime in most states, Ruckelshaus says. Among the exceptions: California has daily triggers set at eight hours. She advises HR professionals to check state and local laws.

Part-time workers—or full-time employees, for that matter— are not legally entitled to benefits, and the number of companies offering health insurance to part-timers has dwindled. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2010 Employee Benefits survey report, 37 percent of employers provide health care coverage for part-time workers, down from 42 percent in 2005.

Under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, employees who work an average of 1,000 hours in a pension plan year must be included in the same company pension plans offered to full-time workers.

When hiring a part-time worker or converting a worker from full- to part-time status, inform the employee of your state’s unemployment insurance laws. Some states require unemployed workers to have worked full time and to be seeking full-time work to receive unemployment insurance benefits. In about 15 states, part-time workers may run afoul of “able and available” rules that basically disqualify from receiving unemployment insurance benefits people not seeking or accepting full-time work.

In recent months, many states have amended their unemployment insurance laws to cover part-time workers, spurred by financial incentives from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires unpaid job-protected leave for a serious medical condition for employees who have worked 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months—roughly 25 hours per week. “Some states have laws that require such leave after fewer hours a year, but many part-time workers don’t qualify,” Ruckelshaus says. If the employee moves from full- to part-time status in the same year, then he or she may qualify.

Choosing to lay off part-time workers instead of full-time workers or reducing a worker’s hours to save money is legally above board, according to Ruckelshaus. Also, moving an employee from full- to part-time status for performance reasons is “within an employer’s rights,” she says, “as long as the weak performance is documented and the employer isn’t changing the status in a discriminatory fashion.”

Developing Part-Time Strategies

CCLC, a national group of 112 employer-sponsored child care providers based in Portland, Ore., landed on the inaugural list of Best Companies for Hourly Workers, published in the May issue of Working Mother magazine. The list ranks employers that provide more than 50 hourly job opportunities.

CCLC’s flexible working options have helped keep turnover at an annual rate of 18 percent vs. the industry rate of 40 percent, says Melinda Rogers, vice president of HR. Of 2,700 employees, mostly teachers, about 300 are part time and work 29 hours or less. Part-time workers aren’t eligible for medical and dental insurance or paid sick leave, but they are eligible for vacation time, accrued at a slower rate. Part-timers also receive $675 a year in tuition assistance, compared with $2,000 for full-time employees.

“Part-time employees are critical to our organization even though they represent a small percentage of our total workforce,” Rogers says. “Where you have part-time workers is usually where you really need them for scheduling flexibility.”

For instance, when enrollment waned last year as parents lost their jobs, CCLC needed staff members to reduce work hours to avoid layoffs. “We asked full-time people if they wanted to become part time,” Rogers says. Some teachers also work reduced hours or take furloughs in the summer because fewer children are enrolled, she notes.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people working part time because their hours had been cut for “slack work or business conditions” stood at 6.3 million in April, down from 6.7 million a year earlier.

Paula Rauenbuehler, director of human resources at The Colonnade Hotel in Boston, knows all too well about the ebb and flow of business and how advantageous it is to have part-time workers to help meet staffing needs. Twenty of the hotel’s 200 employees are part time, defined as working fewer than 32 hours a week. Nonunion part-time workers don’t participate in the hotel’s health insurance, but they do accrue vacation time on a prorated basis. The hotel’s 140 union employees must maintain 80 hours of work a month to participate in health insurance.

Rauenbuehler’s workforce planning strategy takes into consideration seasonal occupancy rates. “Many tourists—not surprisingly— don’t visit Boston in the winter,” she says. Part-timers also fill critical front-desk positions, as well as night and weekend shifts in housekeeping or food service, for example—shifts not covered by full-time workers. “The more flexible the part-time workers are, the more we use them for those less desirable shifts,” Rauenbuehler says. “We also like using part-time workers to give our full-time workers weekends off to spend with their families.”

Rauenbuehler recently converted a full-time night auditor shift position into two part-time positions. “It was easier to find two part-time people than one full-time person to cover that shift,” she explains.

Based on the child care centers’ successful use of part-time teachers, CCLC’s Rogers is looking at implementing a big-picture part-time strategy nationwide. “We want to reach teachers who need more flexibility to care for their school-age children,” she says. And, “In locations near colleges, we want to recruit students who are working toward early childhood education degrees but need part-time work schedules to finish school.”

About.com’s Doyle recommends that more companies take a similar strategic approach to employing part-timers. “Look at your positions and ask where you can accommodate part-time workers and where you can leverage them,” she says. “The more part-time employees you have, the greater the pool of people you have to draw from to work the larger number of shifts.”

Taking Requests

If an employee requests to shift his or her status from full time to part time, Doyle urges HR professionals to be clear on the criteria so that they aren’t signaling to the entire workforce that anyone can be approved for part-time status. “You could get in a situation where the decision is deemed arbitrary and opens up the company to discrimination claims if you reject the request of someone in a protected class,” she notes.

Doyle recommends keeping the criteria out of the employee manual, but ensuring that managers understand the parameters for approval so that they aren’t basing their decisions on favoritism. “Have a formal approval process that includes the supervisor, HR and a vice president, if necessary,” she says.

Mark Bugaieski, SPHR, HR director at Illinois CancerCare, a medical oncology clinic in Peoria, Ill., says employees’ requests are approved or rejected on a case-by-case basis. The employee manual does not mention how to request part-time status, he notes. “Once you write it down, you’re locked into those parameters. But it’s known in our culture that we will evaluate a request based on the position and the performance.”

For Bugaieski, retention trumps business cycles. “It’s not so much the company needing part-time workers as it is HR trying to recruit and retain great people,” he says. “A full-time employee might come to us and say, ‘I need to reduce my hours for’ whatever the reason is, and if the person is a strong performer and has a critical skill set, we transition the position to part time. It’s not a blanket perk available to everyone.”

CCLC managers also consider requests from teachers to reduce hours on a case-by-case basis. “We have to have a business case to support the part-time or job-share request. Will there be a negative effect on the child care center children? Is it feasible? We look more favorably if the teacher is highly credentialed, we want to retain him or her, and he or she has been performing well,” Rogers says.

Cutting Hours, Same Work?

Transitioning a position from full- to part-time status requires a change in job description. The duties and the performance goals change when the hours are reduced and the hourly rate changes, Doyle notes. “You can’t use the current full-time position’s hourly rate for the new part-time position because the duties are less, too,” she says.

Doyle often hears complaints from About.com users who reduced their hours—and pay—and find themselves doing the same amount of work as they did when they worked full time.

“A great employee who is very efficient and experienced will go part time and is able to do the same work on a part-time basis because he or she is just that good,” Doyle notes. That’s demoralizing for the employee. Furthermore, when that person leaves the organization, the HR manager is stuck with a job that no one else can perform in the reduced number of hours.

Bugaieski says planning and oversight by managers can keep this scenario from developing. “Work with the supervisor to rewrite the job description and coach the manager on how to absorb the work no longer being done by this person,” he advises. Regular performance reviews should monitor whether former duties—and any new ones—have crept back into the employee’s purview.

Changing Status

Part-time work does not need to remain solely for low-wage, dead-end positions, especially if more professionals like those in the medical industry move into that status. HR professionals can start enhancing the part-time profiles at their organizations by creating more professional part-time positions and recognizing their special value.

“Reduce the ‘classification mind-set’ so that you have ‘employees’ instead of full-time vs. part-time workers,” Doyle urges. “If you treat them all as critical to your business, then you won’t have part-time employees feeling like ‘less-than’ full-time employees.”

For employees at CCLC, after reducing hours for a limited time to raise children or to go back to school, a full-time position awaits them on the other side. “Giving employees the option to go part time keeps them connected to your business and loyal to you,” Rogers says. “When they do return full time, they are motivated and engaged and have no learning curve to contribute to the organization’s goals. It benefits the worker, and it benefits you.”

By Adrienne Fox is a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.


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