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Part-time employees typically work fewer hours in a day or during a work week than full-time employees; the latter are typically employed for 40 hours. Part-time workers may also be those who only work during certain parts of the year. Part-time work is treated for all practical purposes in the same way as full-time work under federal law, specifically, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies to both types of workers in the same way. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), an employee who works 1,000 hours or more for a company during a calendar year is treated exactly in the same way as a full-time employee for purposes of qualifying for retirement coverage. The U.S. Department of Labor uses a definition of 34 or fewer hours a week as part-time work, but this definition is only used to gather statistical information.
Employers use part-time workers for many reasons, most of them voluntary. Work is seasonal in many industries or has sharp up-and-down fluctuations. The retail industry's busiest season is Christmas; the sector therefore staffs up heavily during the season to handle an increased volume; the Postal Service, similarly, has a large increase in volume and for the same reason. Businesses that cater to summer or winter vacation seasons (hotels, restaurants, entertainment providers, transportation firms) build staffs with part-time workers and then release them at the end of the season. Agriculture has a similar seasonality during the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons. Industries that support seasonal activities with products and equipment very often produce during the opposite season and shut down or cut back in the season itself; thus snowmobile producers build during the summer; boat producers build during the winter.
In many industries temporary work-surges produce the equivalent of "seasons" but are not tied to the calendar—such as massive data keying after survey mailings return, preparations for market launches, the processing of perishable goods, and so on.
Businesses hire part-time workers when work increases but not enough to justify a full-time hire or to establish a new department. They take advantage of the availability of skilled and familiar workers for catch-up work or to fill in for vacationing full-timers in the summer when students are on vacation. Part-time workers are sometimes highly skilled professionals hired on during a certain phase of business—or serve continuously but part-time in order to fulfill a high function that does not require their continuous presence; financial work, software development, sales consulting, and other specialties fall into this category. In times of labor shortage businesses must sometimes hire part-time people they would be glad to put on the full-time staff, but the individuals don't wish to work a full schedule because they are retired or wish to pursue other interests.
In the last decade of the 20th and into the 21st century a new trend has become visible: employers who preferentially hire part-time labor in order to avoid paying benefits such as vacation pay, holidays, personal days, health-care, and retirement benefits—all of which they offer to their full-time employees. Regarding compensation, FLSA's only mandate is that hourly labor be paid the minimum wage. And under other statutes, discrimination is prohibited. But FLSA rules require consistent treatment of all classes of employees. Full-time and part-time workers are distinct classes; sufficient differentiation exists to treat the two categories differently. From this arises the "work-without-benefits" aspect of part-time work. If ordinary benefits are costly, transitioning to this type of labor can save the business a lot of money. The move also has costs, of course, not least in public perception.
Employees take part-time work because they can find no other or they choose to work part time for a variety of personal reasons. Many part-time workers are students; some work part time for family or personal reasons; some because they take care of children, have medical limitations, or wish to stay within certain income limits for tax reasons (e.g., Social Security recipients). Of those who worked part-time voluntarily in 2005, 69 percent were women; among those forced to work part-time, women represented 49 percent.
Based on data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its Current Population Survey (CPS), of 141.7 million employed people in 2005, 24.7 million, 17.4 percent, fell into the part-time category, i.e., they worked fewer than 34 hours a week. Part-time work was highest among whites (18 percent), lowest among African Americans (14.2 percent), and just a shade higher among Asian Americans (14.7 percent). Among all those who worked 34 hours or less, 61.8 percent were women and 38.2 percent were men.
Of all part-time workers, only 13.5 percent of employees were working such hours for economic reasons (i.e., involuntarily); 86.5 percent did so for non-economic reasons. Economic reasons, as already noted, involve the unavailability of more attractive work. Specifically reported non-economic reasons recorded in the CPS include (in descending order of importance) attendance at school, family and personal reasons, retirement and the related wish to limit income for tax purposes, medical limitations, and child care duties.
If we take nonagricultural industries and divide them into major occupational sectors, part-time work was most prevalent in Services (36.8 percent of workers). After that came, in descending order, Sales (28.9 percent), Office Work (26.7), Transportation and Materials Moving (20.7), Management, Professional, and Related Work (19.5), Construction and Extraction (18.0), Production (13.4) and Installation, Maintenance, and Repair (11.6 percent of workers). Conventional wisdom holds that part-time work is most common in the retail sector. These data indicate that that sector comes in as a fairly distant second.
Not surprisingly, median weekly earnings of part-time workers are substantially lower than those engaged in full-time work: averaging $200 a week in 2006 contrasted to $668 a week for full-time work. What is initially surprising is that women working part time consistently earned higher pay than men. In 2005 women earned $201 a week to men's $188; in 2006, men's earnings were flat at $188, women's earnings had increased to $208. In full-time work women trail men—and have as far back as one wishes to look, and at all occupational levels. The explanation for the higher female pay in part-time work must have its roots in higher participation of functionally higher-ranking women in that work arrangement. Many women want to work part time. As GP magazine headlined, "80% of GPs want to be part-time." If the ranks of part-time women include quite a few doctors, lawyers, managers, and other professionals, their labor will, of course, lift the averages for women.
Trends in part-time work have been rather steady and unchanging in the 10-year period between 1996, a year of very strong economic growth, and 2005, a year of slow recovery. Part-time workers in 1996 represented 17.3 percent of employment, in 2005 17.4 percent. Part-time work grew at a fractionally slower rate than total employment, but part-time work undertaken for non-economic, i.e., voluntary, reasons grew three times as rapidly as work undertaken for economic reasons—suggesting that a small part of the workforce wants to have part-time work.
Overall trends are difficult to discern because motivations are difficult to sort. Cost pressures in industry favor it, but efficiency concerns counter this benefit. The large and still increasing participation of women in the work force, and women's desire for flexibility in when and how they work—not surprising in that women still shoulder the chief burden of running families—are here and there also impacting sectors by depriving them of professional skills. For this reason, in recent years, signs have appeared that part-time workers may here and there, selectively, get benefits heretofore available only to full-time workers. That not-yet-formed trend may, of course, make part-time work both more attractive to employees and less so for employers. The crystal ball remains full of smoke.
"80% of Female GPs Want to Be Part-Time." GP. 8 July 2005.
Lang, Joan. "Partners in Time: Managing part-time workers can be a full-time job, but the rewards are sizeable." Food Service Director. 15 March 2005.
McCall, Kimberly L. "Split Decision: Is hiring part-time sales reps a good idea?" Entrepreneur. November 2005.
Miracle, Barbara. "Part-Time Professionals: Not every business can afford a CFO full time, but many need a CFO's services to help their businesses grow." Florida Trend. July 2005.
Uelmen, Amelia J. "The Evils of 'Elasticity': Reflections on the rhetoric of professionalism and the part-time paradox in large firm practice." Fordham Urban Law Journal. November 2005.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." Available from http://www.bls.gov/cps/#charemp. Retrieved on 26 April 2006.