Part-time and Temporary Work

Flexibility for Whom?

By Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly

This article is from the January/February 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the January/February 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 215 cover

When 185,000 Teamsters at United Parcel Service walked out on strike last August, their top demand was reversing UPS's shift toward a part-time and contracted-out workforce. "UPS stands for Unfair Part-time Servitude," yelled Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey at a Boston- area strike support rally, and the crowd roared back its approval. But according to a growing chorus of people concerned with work/family conflicts, the problem is not too many flexible jobs, but too few. "For more than a decade, work-family advocates have been pushing flexible work arrangements," states Sue Shellenbarger, the Wall Street Journal's outspoken "Work & Family" columnist. "Not much happened as a result." "Businesses have just scratched the surface on flexibility issues," agree Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, authors of a recent report on two-earner families.

Which group is right? Both are, because flexibility means different things for businesses and workers. There are too many part-time and temporary jobs that give the employer more flexibility, but deny workers benefits, offer a substandard rate of pay, and/or undermine job security. There are not enough jobs that combine schedule flexibility - needed by parents of young children, retirement-age seniors, students, and others - with decent compensation. In response, unions and other grassroots groups across the country are busy organizing, bargaining, and lobbying on both fronts.

The Problem With Part-Time Work

Start by considering part-time work. During the 1950s and 1960s, part-time employment expanded in response to the changing needs of the workforce, as baby-boom teenagers and mothers of young children streamed into the labor market. But in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, the pattern changed. The baby-boomers aged; mothers increasingly sought full-time hours.

But part-time work kept growing, paced now by involuntary part-time employment - people who wanted full-time hours, but were trapped in part-time jobs. It was no longer job-seekers who drove the increase. Rather, it was businesses seeking to match staffing to peak-time needs and avoid paying fringe benefits. "The pluses of hiring part-time people are the [low] rate of pay that you're able to pay them, the increased [schedule] flexibility that it will allow you, particularly if you have a varying business, varying volume," declared a supermarket manager to one of the authors. "And also [due to company policy] the benefits that are available to a full-time person are not available to a part-timer."

Since the late 1980s, the share of total jobs that are part-time has not risen. Involuntary part-time employment increased during the early 1990s recession (as it does in every recession), then declined once more in the current economic expansion. Contrary to this trend, UPS did continue upsizing its part-timers, bulking up from 42% part-time in 1986 to 60% ten years later.

Problem or Solution?

For four million workers stuck with part-time hours against their will, including by some estimates 20,000 UPS employees, the answer is clear. But this group only accounts for one part-time worker in five. For most of the other 80%, part-time work is both problem and solution. A few - those represented by unions or wielding precious skills - are able to negotiate part-time arrangements that preserve high hourly wage rates, fringe benefits and access to promotion. The majority, however, must give up these rights to gain a part-time schedule. On average, part-time workers earn half as much per hour as full-timers, and are only one-quarter as likely to receive employer-provided health benefits. Part-time jobs at UPS fit this profile in part: although the Teamsters have won UPS part-timers a relatively generous benefit package, the part-time hourly wage is still only about half the full-time rate.

Despite the slings and arrows associated with the typical part-time job, it is important to remember that at UPS and in the workforce at large, most part-time workers choose their short hours. In fact, the U.S. workforce includes several million involuntary full-time workers - people whose jobs won't allow them the reduced hours they prefer. That's no surprise, says Diane Burrus of Boston-based consultant Work/Family Directions, since for most managers "the knee-jerk response is to say no" to requests for flexibility. A Boston-area insurance manager, for example, told us that he would only offer a "good" part-time job to "someone who is critical to my goals."

Temporary Fix

Unlike part-time employment, temporary jobs have continued to proliferate - and rapidly. Whereas part-time work is defined by shorter-than-standard hours, temporary work involves short-term jobs. Temporary arrangements offer powerful advantages to employers - a chance to hire workers only as long as needed, or to evaluate potential employees without making any commitment. As a result, temp agency employment has expanded twenty-fold since the early 1960s, to the point where Manpower, Inc. employs more people over the course of a year than any other private employer in the country. However, temporary-help agencies still only amount to 2% of the workforce; adding in on-call workers and other contingent employees boosts this number to a more substantial 11%.

Temp work in particular has been touted as providing workers with ultimate flexibility in choosing when they work and in turning down undesirable assignments. For retirees looking for extra activities and income, as well as for those workers who can rely on the much higher earnings and benefit coverage of a spouse, the structures of temporary employment seem adequate. But while some temp assignments are short in duration, other temp jobs are no longer temporary: they last for months but remain "temp" jobs lacking sick pay or health benefits. Some high-end temp agencies provide decent pay, and even health coverage, to workers they place in highly skilled assignments, but for most workers "temporary" equals "no fringe benefits." For many workers who remain in contingent situations for extended durations, their prospects for flexibility and choice have not materialized. When a worker comes to rely on temporary employment for a living and as a means to find regular employment, the option of turning down undesirable assignments or of working on and off over the course of a year is no longer real.

Additionally, as temp arrangements have grown since the early 1980s, they have come to affect increasing numbers of workers who are simply looking for work. Seventy-three percent of temp help workers in a federal study reported they would prefer permanent employment, and so would 66% of on-call/day labor workers. Women are often described as wanting all manner of temp work, but 66% of women temps would still prefer long-term employment, along with 79% of men. So in most cases temporary work provides flexibility that is valuable to businesses, but painful to employees.

Flexibility that deserves the label "worker-friendly" must come with a living wage, a benefit package, and some degree of long-term security (whether through long-term jobs or a safety net providing security between jobs). Clearly, the workforce needs and wants more of this kind of flexibility and less "business-as-usual" flexibility that comes at workers' expense.

What could drive a workplace shift in this direction? One possibility is enlightened business self-interest. Second-class part-time and temporary jobs elicit second-class commitment, effort, and productivity from workers. The supermarket manager, quoted earlier, who enumerated the cost and schedule flexibility advantages of a part-time workforce went on to list the disadvantages: "The abilities, experience, and work level that they achieve - their loyalty to the position and the company. I'm talking about absenteeism, I'm talking about tardiness, shrinkage [a retail euphemism for theft], attitude." At one supermarket chain, part-timers last one-tenth as long as full-time employees. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the retail industry, which added part-timers more aggressively than any other sector over the last several decades, actually saw productivity decline over the same period.

Productive Flexibility

On the other hand, providing flexibility as part of a decent job pays productivity dividends. "Professional part-time people are generally very committed people," declared a human resource official at a Boston-area insurance company - who herself had spent some time as a part-timer at the company while her children were young. "They want to do it all. They're driven. It's interesting to think that part-time people may actually be more committed." MIT researcher Lotte Bailyn found that Xerox units that redesigned work based on work and family needs saw 30% fewer absences, achieved quicker responses to customers, and completed a new product on time for the first time ever. The Xerox groups took simple steps, such as allowing worker teams to collaboratively design their own approaches to schedule flexibility, and achieved powerful results.

But if we wait for businesses' pursuit of the bottom line to sweep away exploitative forms of contingent work and build positive forms of flexibility, it could be a long wait. Starbucks coffee shop CEO Howard Shultz boasts that providing benefits to his part-time workers yields a superior workforce, but other coffee bars and fast food franchises are not tripping over each other to follow his example. Perhaps it's because the cost savings from lower wages and nonexistent fringes are easy to compute, but the productivity payoff from happy workers is notoriously hard to measure, especially in service industries. Perhaps it's because most burger joints, unlike Starbucks, don't offer a premium product and can't charge premium prices. Jim Edwards, the manager who led the work-family experiment at Xerox's Dallas administrative center, cheerfully announced, "I like to break the chains of tradition" - but the fact is, most managers don't like it and don't do it.

If corporate enthusiasm won't propel a new wave of family- friendly flexibility, another possibility is government. A federal system of universal and portable health and pension coverage would do much to remove the liabilities of part-time and temporary work. Universal coverage, whether funded from general revenues or payroll taxes, would also eliminate much of the cost advantage to employers of contingent arrangements, reducing their incentives to create such jobs even when workers may not want them.

What about the Republican proposal to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow workers to take compensatory time instead of overtime pay? Though giving workers a free choice between overtime and comp time would be a welcome enhancement to schedule flexibility, the AFL-CIO and others were quick to point out that some employers would surely pressure employees to take comp time - in some cases, perhaps, even deferring the comp time indefinitely to avoid paying workers. What appears at first to be worker-friendly flexibility, these critics charge, instead turns out to be an opening for old-fashioned flexibility on the employer's terms.

Some state legislatures, on the other hand, are starting to explore more innovative terrain. In Massachusetts, for example, the Campaign on Contingent Work is promoting the "Contingent Work Bill." The bill's central provision would require businesses to pay part-time and temporary workers equal hourly pay and proportional benefits for equal work. The bill would also mandate an annual "job gap" study that would supplement information about unemployment rates with an assessment of job quality - how many jobs are involuntary part-time jobs, how many pay a living wage sufficient to lift a family out of poverty, and so on. The Campaign is coupling legislative lobbying with grassroots organizing, with a powerful assist from the state AFL-CIO.

New organizing strategies

In Massachusetts and elsewhere, organizing is needed to fuel legislative action. Unions and community groups have devised novel strategies to contend with the growth of temp agencies and day-labor pools. They have opened temp worker centers - currently focused on providing information, but with longer term goals of legislative action or union representation. Newly formed networks document temp work experiences, and spread information on employment rights and on the quality of temp assignments provided by different user firms. Unions and community groups have also hatched "consumer strategies," creating employer "codes of conduct" like the ones designed to put pressure on sweatshops. Another organizing goal is to gain fringes for contingent workforces. One approach forms multi-employer bargaining units, grouping small businesses' contributions into a single benefit pool. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) allied with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD, a church-based community group) to create a minimum wage worker association along these lines. Other groups, such as the employee rights lobby Working Today, obtain group health insurance rates for a membership of self-employed freelancers.

All of these organizing efforts combine action with individual workers along with a legislative strategy and more conventional organizing campaigns. These resourceful approaches all aim to make the most tenuous temporary jobs more livable for workers by building a "web" of information and a "net" of social protection.

Organizing can also achieve flexibility goals in ways that legislation cannot. A law like the Massachusetts Contingent Work Bill can help to block employers from creating second-class part-time and temporary jobs, but it does not create an incentive for businesses to expand true worker-friendly flexibility. The biggest successes in gaining flexibility rights have come through union bargaining - especially in unions with large female memberships such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), AFSCME, and the Communications Workers of America. For example, SEIU Locals 535 and 715 (both representing Santa Clara County, California employees) have won the right for full-time workers to move to a job-sharing or permanent part-time arrangement, and vice versa - while preserving seniority, pay levels, and prorated benefits. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) local 1245 bargained with Pacific Gas and Electric for a flextime policy allowing variability around core hours. IBEW locals 827 and 1922 negotiated with Bell Systems a comprehensive telecommuting arrangement that allows clericals to work from home. The agreement also provides workers with 30 minutes per month of paid time to attend union meetings and with voice mail to allow the union to communicate with employees!

As all these examples illustrate, the big question is "flexibility for whom?" Workplace flexibility too often comes at workers' expense, but flexibility with the right ground rules can meet workers' needs instead. Right now, workers enjoy a little extra bargaining power for such worker-friendly flexibility. With unemployment plumbing its lowest levels in 24 years, labor shortages are beginning to pinch businesses in many parts of the country. Wall Street Journal columnist Shellenbarger, leaving behind earlier laments, reports, "As competition for skilled workers mounts, the workplace is getting more flexible, fast."

This state of affairs won't last, of course. Recession will strike once more, restoring employers' upper hand. And even today's workforce shortages are far less helpful to unskilled manual labor pool employees than to information technology professionals at Xerox. All the same, with employer resistance relatively low, worker confidence building, and organizing tactics becoming more resourceful, the current economic climate offers an important opportunity to advance worker-friendly flexibility.

Françoise Carré is the Research Program Director at the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute. Chris Tilly, a member of the Dollars & Sense collective, teaches Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They have written several articles on part-time and contingent work together.

Resources: Contingent Work: American Employment Relations in Transition, Kathleen Barker and Kathleen Christensen (Cornell University Press, forthcoming); "Building Stability for Temporary and Transient Workforces," Françoise Carré and Pamela Joshi, Working Paper No. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, 1997); Work, Family, and the Labor Movement, Lea Grundy and Netsy Firestein, (Cambridge, MA: Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, 1997); Non-Standard Work, Substandard Jobs: Flexible Work Arrangements in the U.S., Arne Kalleberg and others, (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute and Women's Research and Education Institute, 1997); Half a Job: Bad and Good Part-Time Jobs in a Changing Labor Market, Chris Tilly (Temple University Press, 1996).
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