What Underworked Part-timers Have in Common with Overworked Professionals

ticking clocksAnyone who has worked a nonstandard, part-time job is familiar with the issues: uncertain hours, fluctuating pay and last-minute change. Add to that a more recent scheduling innovation increasingly common in retail work: on-call hours that require workers to set aside time they may be required to work, with no compensation for that time and no guarantee of hours or pay.

Variable schedules are particularly challenging for parents, who can find it difficult to arrange childcare, attend school events, and even maintain morning and bedtime routines. Fluctuating schedules can interfere with ability to attend school or hold down an additional job. Because pay varies with hours, workers may also have difficulty making ends meet.

In response to demands of women’s and labor groups, government officials are increasingly enacting or proposing legislation aiming to curtail practices that present the greatest challenges to employees. Many workers have gained the right to request predictable schedules (although laws currently do not require employers to honor their requests). Other proposals call for work schedules posted two weeks in advance, compensation for on-call status, and extra pay if workers are called in with less than 24-hours notice or are sent home after just a few hours of work.

Despite evidence that stability made possible by proposed legislation would serve both employees and bosses, business interests roundly denounce these efforts. Echoing the neoliberal ideology underlying conservative economic policies, they reject any constraints on the employment relationship and call for markets to determine work practices. For employers, this means having the freedom to treat labor like any other type of inventory. For employees, this means their work lives – and increasingly their non-work lives – are subverted to employers’ production needs, as they themselves absorb the risks and shocks that were once considered part of the cost of doing business.

Amanda Mathur, of the American Enterprise Institute, complains that proposed legislation protects employees, but not employers, against fluctuating demand. She also describes variable schedules as serving the needs of not only employers but also employees. Seemingly and perhaps willfully missing the point of calls for change, she conflates part-time and variable scheduling, declaring: “Many part-time workers choose these alternative work schedules because it allows time for school or for family and child care.”

Mathur suggests that proposed legislation would increase costs associated with hiring and firing, resulting in fewer jobs available to needy individuals. A similar claim is made by Harvard and Cato Institute economist, Jeffrey Miron, who argues that strict regulation of shift hours would encourage employers to eliminate part-time workers’ jobs or replace them with machines. He does not explain how employers will address upticks in demand, describe machinery capable of doing these jobs, or explain why two-weeks notice or other proposed changes are more than employers can handle. Rather, he calls up the tired neoliberal argument that “Any attempt to regulate part-time work schedules is misguided – just like all government intervention in the labor market (minimum wage laws, union protections, and hours and overtime rules) is misguided.”

Grim projections such as these ignore an essential fact: what these and other workers need are not more jobs but better jobs – ones that allow them to make ends meet while avoiding in their own lives the very kinds of uncertainty that employers abhor for themselves. What is needed are changes that allow part-time workers to care for children or aging parents, serve their communities, attend school, and take additional jobs if needed.

Some of these challenges likely sound very familiar to workers who perceive themselves as quite different from the targets of the proposed legislation. In fact, the struggles of overworked professionals, many of whom report difficulty finding time for family and caregiving responsibilities, are rooted in the very same neoliberal orientations and economics-driven calculations that encourage employers to withhold hours and stability from their part-time employees.

While employers prefer to have a large pool of hourly workers – calling up only the precise number required for specific hours needed and then sending them home – the fixed costs of salaried employees means that additional hours devoted to work come at no extra cost to employers. Pressing salaried employees for more work effort can in fact generate a cost savings if employers can secure enough “free” labor to forgo hiring.

“Although over- and underemployment create different challenges for workers, the trade-offs are strikingly similar,” writes Susan Lambert. “‘Availability’ is now a major form of human capital, in both high-powered salaried positions and low-level hourly jobs. Low-wage workers need to be available at all hours or risk not having work. Professionals are expected to remain electronically tethered to their jobs day and night or risk forgoing coveted opportunities.

These trends are not new; rather, they are part-and-parcel of the shift away from full-time and secure work toward part-time and contingent jobs that has been underway since the 1970s. To illustrate, a tendency for less educated workers in less-prestigious jobs to prefer more hours – and professional workers to prefer fewer – was evident in data collected in the early 1990s, as sociologists Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson have shown.

In his essay, “Time-Wars,” author Mark Fisher describes these trends as outgrowths of capitalism and neoliberal ideology that together have wreaked havoc on our collective defense against the ever-expanding intrusion of work into our private lives and on our comprehension of the underlying issues. “It is highly functional for capital that our time is not only quantitatively short but qualitatively fragmented,” he explains. Coupled with neoliberal attacks on unions and social welfare programs, we lack the time, energy and security needed for individual and collective creativity and social change. What is more, he notes, we often harbor resentment against those who have somehow prevented work from dominating the rest of their lives. “If there is to be any kind of future,” Fisher tells us, “it will depend on our winning back the uses of time that neoliberalism has sought to close off and make us forget.”

The existing and proposed laws are a modest attempt to make life more livable for millions of workers. Regardless of whether and when success will be achieved – and proponents acknowledge that they face significant barriers in getting legislation passed – the public debates have potential to stimulate a larger conversation in which workers question the neoliberal propositions underlying flexible employment – collectively asking “Flexibility for whom?” and taking larger steps to reclaim their frazzled lives. Perhaps out of necessity, those in the most marginal economic positions are leading the way. In the future, they may be joined by workers at the other end of the occupational spectrum, who have just as much to gain.

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