Back to business: Part-timers scramble for multiple jobs
In the vernacular of the labor market, I'm an "involuntary part-time worker" -- someone who would rather be working full time than part time.
Last year, some 8.5 million Americans were so characterized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed part time for "economic reasons": because their hours had been cut or they just couldn't find full-time work.
My economic reason was a 2009 layoff, when I joined legions of others on the Great Recession unemployment line. My field was newspapers, where staff cuts nationwide had accelerated at a rapid clip to stay ahead of a dramatic drop in print advertising sales. And while I set my mind to continuing as a writer and editor, I soon discovered that neither my years of experience nor professional awards mattered much when so many similar resumes were flooding the market. Yes, I snagged my share of interviews, but not the full-time work I wanted.
Finally, exhausted financially and emotionally, I took a part-time research job last fall.
And do you know what? Part time isn't what I remembered it being. My job is just 12 hours a week, meaning I'd need two more like it to get to the threshold -- 35 hours or more -- that the government uses to define full-time employment.
That left me wondering whether other "involuntaries" like me also were scrambling for multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. So I decided to check with some experts.
Two economists at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, who separately interpret national and state data, said they don't see any indication that the number of jobs held by part-time workers rose during the recession. On the other hand, a think-tank economist and a college professor read the figures a bit differently.
"While you hear people talk about multiple-jobholding spiking due to the economy, the data don't really seem to bear it out," said Jim Campbell, an economist in the Division of Local Area Unemployment Statistics at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "There may be a need and a desire to get more than one job by many people, but the reality of getting and holding down multiple jobs seems to be more problematic." Added his colleague, Steven Hipple, an economist in the Division of Labor Force Statistics: "It looks like the vast majority of multiple jobholders -- about 9 in 10 -- have two jobs and that proportion hasn't changed much from 2009 to 2011."
Both Campbell and Hipple follow trends in what is known as "multiple jobholding," in which the government tracks workers -- full and part time -- who have more than one job. The jobs may be hourly or salaried and the workers can even be self-employed or unpaid family members, as long as they also have a wage or salary position. Multiple jobholders then are divided into four status categories: primary full-time job and secondary part-time job (once known as "moonlighting"); primary and secondary jobs both part time; primary and secondary jobs both full time; hours varying on primary or secondary job.
Campbell, in an article last fall in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly magazine, reported that the multiple-jobholding rate -- the number of people with more than one job as a percentage of total employment -- had declined in many states from 2009 to 2010. In New York, for instance, multiple jobholders were 4.3 percent of total employment in 2010, vs. 4.6 percent a year earlier.
Hipple, in a July 2010 article in the magazine, said the multiple-jobholding rate "has shown no clear cyclical pattern" -- not varying in boom or bust times -- and has remained at about 5 percent during the 2000s. He reported that 92 percent of multiple jobholders in 2009 held two jobs; 7 percent had three and 1 percent held four or more jobs.
I'm no labor expert, but a glance at the government's numbers shows multiple jobholders with part-time primary and secondary jobs -- who could be involuntaries like me -- crept up in the second half of 2011.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., said she was "excited" to get my question on whether the recession had forced part-time workers to find more part-time jobs, because she had never looked at the numbers through that lens.
Shierholz, who monthly crunches the government's labor turnover report to determine how many workers are vying for each available U.S. job (the recession-high ratio was 6-to-1), said the number of multiple-jobholders had been drifting down since 2007. That's "no surprise," she said, since the number of jobs overall also had declined.
But the number of multiple jobholders with part-time primary and secondary jobs "has not dropped," she said, instead holding steady at some 1.8 million before the recession began in 2007 and at year-end 2011. "Every single labor market number drops except this one," she said, after reminding me that 1.8 million is just a sliver of the civilian labor force of some 154 million people.
Luke Shaefer, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who has written about the lack of a social safety net for workers whose primary job is part time, said he hadn't looked into whether multiple jobholders took on additional part-time work during the recession.
But, he said, while full-time employment is below where it was at the start of the recession, "part-time work has actually grown." For individual workers, though, depending on the industry, part-time hours may be down as employers attempt to ride out rough patches by pinching labor costs.
"So," Shaefer said, "if you are talking to people who used to work full time, now they are working part time and part-time jobs don't give as many hours as before, it would make sense that they would be feeling strapped and going after additional jobs." That's the course I took. Besides the part-time job, I have a regular freelance writing gig that amounts to about eight hours a week, and I'm able to land other freelance work hit-and-miss. All told, in a good month I might earn what I used to take home each week pre-recession.
That means I'm one involuntary part-time worker still hunting for additional hours -- or, better yet, full-time employment.