Part-time workers hurt by on-call system

An increasing number of low-wage employees have unpredictable schedules and hours.

By MSN Money producer Dec 5, 2013 3:11PM

By Herb Weisbaum,


The Great Recession changed the American workplace. More and more jobs that used to be full time are now part time, with lower pay and limited or no benefits. number of "involuntary" part-time workers -- people who want a full-time job but can't find one or have had their hours cut back by their current employer -- has nearly doubled since 2007. There were 8.1 million involuntary part-time workers in October, versus 4.3 million in October 2007, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (.pdf file).


"Using part-time workers increases flexibility and gives companies an ability to adjust to changing business conditions," said Aparna Mathur, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Unless we see economic conditions improving, I think this trend will continue."


In addition, the nature of part-time work has changed. At many companies, part time means "on call" with no fixed number of hours per week. It's the equivalent of just-in-time inventory for the labor force.


"It's an extremely abusive and unfair practice," said Carrie Gleason, executive director of the Retail Action Project (RAP). "Part-time workers' hours are constantly changing -- and not just weekly, but sometimes on a daily basis."


In a report released last year, RAP interviewed 436 retail workers in New York. Twenty percent of those surveyed said they must always or often be available for "call-in" shifts. More than a third said they were sometimes, often or always sent home early from work.


While extreme flexibility might be good for some businesses, it's rough for employees to deal with constant uncertainty. They've basically become day labor and need to call in every day to find out if they have hours.


"This has created tremendous instability for the retail workforce," Gleason said. "It's difficult to arrange for child care, to go to school or hold down a second job, which so many part-time workers desperately need."


Always juggling your schedule


Akaisa O'Kieffe, a 21-year-old in Brooklyn, N,Y., wants a full-time job but can get only part-time hours at the Manhattan clothing store where she works.


Some weeks she works three days, some weeks only two. She always has a shift on Wednesday, but the other days float. And the schedule doesn't get posted until Friday.


The last-minute scheduling leaves this single mom with unpredictable paychecks and a constant scramble to find child care.


"It's a real pain," she said. "I honestly feel they're taking advantage of us."


It also isn't easy looking for work when the schedule is different from week to week.


"The day you plan to look for a job is always the day they call you in to work, and so you can't do it," O'Kieffe said. "It's ridiculous."


Is this really good for business?


Many companies that could promote part-time workers to full time are not doing it because of the soft economy. With so many people desperate for work, management has the upper hand. If one part-time worker leaves, plenty of others are ready and willing.


Experts point out that just-in-time scheduling can have a downside for companies, too.


Tita Gray, a lecturer in the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University, said part-time workers can be a good thing when a company needs help with a specific project or emergency, but can create real problems if the workers are used simply to reduce costs.


"You have high turnover costs and you don't build employee loyalty," she said. "You have a workforce that for the most part does not care as much about the customer. So you may save money this way, but it's detrimental to your customer base."


Is this the new normal?


John Challenger, CEO of Challenger Gray & Christmas, the Chicago-based outplacement and career transitioning firm, believes we'll see more of this.


"Companies, especially retailers, are looking for ways to bring in employees as they need them -- to cover the traffic but not get caught with too many people standing around," he said. "They want the ability to be able to staff up or down, depending on what happens."


Challenger said there are now three levels of employment: full time, part time with specific shifts and on call. And, he said, people move between them all the time.


"If you're working as an on-call worker, you're auditioning for a part-time or permanent job," he said. "It's better than an interview for a company. They can see how you work, how you fit in."


Maybe so, but Gleason at RAP sees a darker side to the trend.


"Between being expected to have open availability, waiting by the phone for on-call shifts and being sent home early, retail workers are getting shortchanged by this industry," she said.


More from 

Dec 5, 2013 4:19PM

Employers will offer jobs with those strings attached as long as they can get enough workers to fill the slots. If folks decline to accept a position with those requirements they will change.


Remember an employer is looking to buy labor to meet their needs at the price they want to pay. As long as they can buy all the labor they need at the price they want to pay there’s no reason for them to make adjustments to their wages and job requirements.

Dec 5, 2013 4:38PM
I am really struggling with all the unemployment talk ... I swear I am not trying to be mean or disrespectful to any one who is really hurting but I need to hire 1 entry level person ... I have reviewed 250 resume's and could only push myself to offer 3 interviews .. out of those 3, 1 never responded, 1 made an appointment, then didn't show up or call and the person that did come wasn't actually qualified. I have had cover letters that say "don't waste my time if you won't tell me the pay up front", I have had, "interested in the position you have you have to offer, I would like to know if it pays well and can I work from home, if the answers are yes, please call me" ... I thought the resume's were a joke but 250 later I honestly struggle with how many of the unemployed are actually employable. It is a warehouse position. I literally had one letter that said, "looking to work in a marijuana warehouse, if that is your gig, hit me up'!!!! Are these people seriously looking for work????
Dec 5, 2013 5:13PM
Don't you just love those bilingual requirements?  That stops good many workers from applying.
Dec 5, 2013 6:13PM
Using part time workers lets business not have to comply with Obama care. I guess Obama should have read the bill before he signed it.
Dec 5, 2013 4:47PM
A big chunk of this change is due to companies' successful fight to reduce the role of unions and to right-to-work laws.  Employers could never get away with this in a union shop.
Dec 5, 2013 4:12PM
A friend has an on call schedule for her job and she never knows whether she will actually have a day off or what her hours at work will be (including night shift).  Her life revolves around the whim of a major corporation in town.  It is exceedingly difficult for her to schedule personal and routine activities such as medical appointments, dental appointments, etc.  She just completed a 14 day shift without a day off and is seriously contemplating moving to part-time and looking for another job if she can get some reasonable medical insurance coverage come January.  Her big reason for hanging onto her job has been to maintain health insurance coverage.  Once that incentive is gone, she feels that she has the flexibility to look elsewhere as her current job is far too physically taxing with the on-call scheduling.     
Dec 5, 2013 4:28PM
Employers will offer jobs with those strings attached as long as they can get enough workers to fill the slots. If folks decline to accept a position with those requirements they will change--------------- Ya sure,  we saw that work back in the 1920 and 1930's.... You must be rich to just hold out for any job. Of course they know they have the upper hand when their are so few jobs.
Dec 5, 2013 4:19PM
Hours will be cut back even more with Obamacare.
Dec 5, 2013 6:29PM
Another 21 year old single mom working part time.  This is really getting old.  At least she doesn't have seven kids like the gal featured last week.  So we pay because she is not educated.  We pay for her child I suspect.  And we get to listen to her say "its tough".  Well kid, it would be tough for all of us if we had chosen the same life path as you did.  Deal with it and keep your hand out of our pockets. 
Dec 6, 2013 12:52AM
Yeah, and the ACA had nothing to do with that??? This is just another article trying to shift the blame from this administration and it's actions to some other cause or reason. How many businesses cut their retirees and part time workers health benefits and placed them into the exchanges? How many businesses reduced their hours to under 30 per week to escape their ACA responsibility. Cause and effect. The recession ended in 2009. Why, because the government told us it did. Now, we're being told the economy is moving right along. Then why aren't businesses increasing their work force and going back to pre recession practices? I'm not buying this one.  
Dec 5, 2013 4:38PM
on call 24/7. that's life if you want to survive in the fisheries industry. countless days not being able to make any plans, as you may or may not be called for work. in this economy, i can't complain, considering the remote area i live. fortunately there isn't a lot of people stupid enough to do my job, so an ironic job security plus for me. just happy to have a job most of the time.
Dec 19, 2013 2:03AM
My wife recently took a job at burger king  she is starting to experience this practice first hand she is only getting part time hours and doesn't have a weekly schedule  The manager makes the scheduled three days at a time So she basically has to call in once a day to see if she has hours the next day. It is usually a four hour shift We live in the Tampa Bay area and the average pay here is only around 9 dollars an hour. I personally have a Bachelors degree in Information technology and 85% of the companies offering positions are only offering 12 to 15 dollars an hour and are requesting 3 to 5 years experience.  What the hell happened to American companies.  I personally have lost all respect for most companies for the way they treat labor as expendable . Companies used to care about people and people where proud of where they worked. Most people I talk to have changed to a who cares about the company attitude and are basically there for what ever little bit of paycheck 
Dec 5, 2013 4:18PM
The number of "involuntary" part-time workers -- people who want a full-time job but can't find one or have had their hours cut back by their current employer -- has nearly doubled since 2007.---

All because of ObamaCare, ACA right???? ha... How about we finally own up to the fact that the world has changed and we must too. Our old structures are out of date for a global economy. Our infrastructure is wasting away too. We had 7 million farms and are down to 2 million. Legacy costs no longer work and we have to find new ways for people to save and retire. Healthcare is a mess. We have all these healthcare systems:  private, medicare, medicaid, VA, Gov as in Washington's special coverage, some pensions with healthcare, etc. Then when I went looking via google it was apparent there are many brokers out there now trying to sell off the ACA  plans and then you can go directly to the insurance site for the ACA. WHAT A MESS..  and who has the correct data???????? Who is keeping this all in sync???????
Dec 5, 2013 5:29PM
I don't see how this is very different from indentured servitude.
Dec 5, 2013 11:06PM

This is not a new normal, but a SLOW-MOTION CRASH of the underlying economy.  This is the consequence of the Federal Reserve Bank telling the world that inflation and spending are what bring prosperity.  Those who protest that such principle is horribly wrong, that sound money, productivity and savings are needed are ridiculed as "right wing extremists."  President Obama supports inflation and spending.  So do Democratic Congressmen and many Republicans, too.  Influential columnists like Paul Krugman jump on the bandwagon and try to shout down opposition.


Why does using Fed stimulus to jack up the stock market and the housing market destroy good-paying full time jobs?


1) As the money supply increases, the cost of doing business goes up, just as the cost of living goes up.  Business owners react by reducing payroll cost.  Replacing full time workers with part time workers reduce costs.  Putting part timers on call is a desperate measure, as businesses struggle to survive at all.


2) Stimulus enriches big bankers, making them lazy.  Their capital is borrowed from the Fed at 0% interest.  Stock price surge is easy money.  Treasury bonds and bills bring big interest income even at ultra-low rates because the bankers can borrow huge amounts when there is no interest.  The laziness is manifested by reduction in lending to smaller businesses, which means fewer new jobs.


3) Fewer new businesses and more failure of existing businesses means less competition for those still prospering.  This means lack of pressure on still-prosperous businesses to pay their employees more. 


If you think the situation here is bad now, wait until China stops supporting the U.S. dollar!  China has its own problems with bubbles and pollution.  It needs to spend much of the $3.66 trillion in dollars it has, not accumulate even more.  And the Bank Of China just announced that it won't accumulate more foreign reserves from now on! 

Dec 5, 2013 5:37PM
And the market sold off late afternoon, once again....We couldn't make this up if we tried folks, every day this week has been so similar....Manipulators having their best week in about 9 weeks...Oh well, a couple of things though, the GDP is suspect, totally made up; like we always say, they can fool the people out there but they cant fool Wall Street...Other than that news were decent today but, news do not move markets, people do and this week manipulators have been out in droves on and off the floor, making up for the last few weeks....Oh, one more thing, fasten your seat belts tomorrow.....Jobs day....God help us.
Ps..Tapering anytime soon is totally bogus.
Dec 15, 2013 4:52AM
I'm not sure it is legal to require an employee to be available on call unless you are paying that employee something for the time they are required to be available. Somehow I doubt they are doing it officially, though.
Dec 5, 2013 10:29PM
Reality check part time employees wages still falling ,which indictes these employees are in depression. Full time means 28 to 34 hours week ,also indictes manufactoring is in depression because the factorys are below 50 percent capacity. As for unemployment percent  is falling because no one left to lay off an ones who are layed off cant find job an lost there benfits also indicates depression is worseing . Guess looking down from ceo  point veiw profits still look good when easyer to out source an close factorys in usa  
Dec 5, 2013 4:16PM

Welcome to the "Obama Economy".....


Just another of the many unintended consequences of the f'd up "Obama-Don't Care" Act.

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