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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Trend to part-time jobs frustrates millions of American workers

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
The New York Times

SPRING VALLEY, Calif. — Since the Fresh & Easy grocery chain was founded five years ago, it has opened 150 markets in California and positioned itself as a hip, socially responsible company.

A cross between Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, the company brags that its house brands have no artificial colors or trans fats, that two-thirds of its produce is grown locally and that its main distribution center is powered by a $13 million solar installation.

But in one crucial respect, Fresh & Easy is just like the vast majority of large American retailers: Most employees work part time, with its stores changing many workers' schedules week to week.

At its store here, just east of San Diego, Shannon Hardin oversees seven self-checkout stations, usually by herself. Typically working shifts of five or six hours, she hops between stations — bagging groceries, approving alcohol purchases, explaining the checkout system to shoppers and urging customers to join the retailer's loyalty program, all while watching for shoplifters.

"I like it. I'm a people person," said Hardin, 50, who worked as an office assistant at a construction company until times went bad.

But after nearly five years at Fresh & Easy, she remains a part-time worker despite her desire to work full time. In fact, all 22 employees at her store are part time, except for the five managers.

She earns $10.90 an hour, and with workweeks averaging 28 hours, her yearly pay equals $16,500. "I can't live on this," said Hardin, who is single. "It's almost impossible."

While there always have been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full time, for more pay and benefits.

"Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full time to at least 70 percent part time across the industry," said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.

No one has collected detailed data on part-time workers at the nation's major retailers. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut 1 million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs.

Technology is speeding this transformation. In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But schedules have become less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle anticipated demand.

"Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts," said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains such as Aeropostale and Pier 1 Imports.

Some employers even ask workers to come in at the last minute, and the workers risk losing their jobs or receiving fewer hours in the future if they are unavailable.

Low pay, fewer benefits

The widening use of part-timers has been a bane to many workers, pushing many into poverty and forcing some onto food stamps and Medicaid. And with work schedules that change week to week, workers can find it hard to arrange child care, attend college or hold a second job, according to interviews with more than 40 part-time workers.

To be sure, many people prefer to work part time — for instance, college students eager for spending money and older people who work during the holiday season to earn money for gifts. But in two leading industries — retailing and hospitality — the number of part-timers who would prefer to work full time has jumped to 3.1 million, or 2 ½ times the 2006 level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In retailing, nearly 30 percent of part-timers want full-time jobs, up from 10.6 percent in 2006. The agency found that in the retail and wholesale sector, which includes hundreds of thousands of small stores that rely heavily on full-time workers, about three in 10 employees work part time.

Retailers and restaurants rely heavily on part-timers not only because it gives them flexibility, but also because it cuts payroll costs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part-time workers in service jobs received average compensation of $10.92 an hour in June, made up of $8.90 in wages plus benefits of $2.02. Full-time workers in that sector averaged 57 percent more in total compensation — $17.18 an hour, made up of $12.25 in wages and $4.93 in benefits. Benefit costs are far lower for part-timers because, for example, just 21 percent of them are in employer-backed retirement plans, compared with 65 percent of full-timers.

At the Fresh & Easy store, Hardin is forever urging her boss to give her more hours, she said, but instead, "they turn around and hire more people." Some weeks, her boss gives her an extra shift when a co-worker is sick or on vacation.

Officials of Fresh & Easy, which is owned by Tesco, the largest supermarket company in Britain, declined to be interviewed. But the company noted that its entry-level pay was $10 an hour, substantially higher than at most retailers, with quarterly bonuses on top of that. Also, the company said it offered excellent benefits, including health insurance to anyone averaging more than 20 hours a week.

Hardin said her recent quarterly bonuses averaged less than $200, and while she appreciated the health insurance, she often could not afford the co-pays to see a doctor.

The decline of unions

The rise of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, with their long operating hours and complex staffing needs, has contributed to the increase in part-timers.

Flickinger, the retail consultant, said that when Wal-Mart spread nationwide and opened hundreds of 24-hour stores in the 1990s, intense competitive pressures were created and many retailers were prompted to copy the company's cost-cutting practices, including heavy reliance on part-timers.

Susan J. Lambert, an expert on part-time work and a professor of organizational theory at the University of Chicago, said the use of part-timers also had escalated because of labor unions' declining power.

"They set a standard for what a real job was — Monday through Friday with full-time hours," she said. "We've moved away from that."

Many corporations place store or restaurant managers under strict limits for payroll or employee hours per week, usually based on a formula tied to sales. These formulas usually give managers little flexibility to increase the hours assigned.

David Henson, a former assistant manager at a Wal-Mart in Thief River Falls, Minn., said part-timers would sometimes come into his office on the brink of tears.

"A lot of them were single mothers. They said they weren't earning enough to support their families," he said. "They desperately wanted more hours, but we weren't able to give them."

Some, Henson said, were eager to take second jobs. But if they said they were unavailable during certain hours, the managers and scheduling software would reduce their hours further, he said. Many workers concluded it was not worth it.

David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said fewer than half of Wal-Mart's hourly employees were part time and that the company provided better wages and benefits than many competitors. But he acknowledged that part-time employees with less availability typically were assigned fewer hours.

Flickinger, the retail consultant, said companies benefited from using many part-timers.

"It's almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land," he said. "Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours."

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