Since the Great Recession of 2008, the political focus has shifted in turn from widespread unemployment, to acute long-term unemployment, and, now, to the perils of widespread part-time underemployment. Does part-time work have to mean full-time poverty?
We'll say up front that the trope of "Part-Time America"—if interpreted to mean that part-time jobs have replaced full-time jobs as the default employment—is overstated. That said, the fact is that millions of Americans who would like to be working full time and receiving benefits, a steady salary, and predictable hours, are instead forced to work part-time jobs that offer low pay, few or no benefits, and a schedule that shifts constantly, placing them at the constant mercy of their employer.
Steven Greenhouse today surveys the various proposals pending nationwide to improve the of part-time workers who labor in a constant state of "on-call employment," in which they must be ready to drop everything and work at unpredictable times. All these proposals cluster around the theme of "If we can't give you a living wage, we can at least give you a reasonable schedule." They include bills that would do things like charge companies a penalty for changing workers' schedules with little notice; guarantee workers at least four hours pay per day; give workers up to two weeks notice of what their schedules will be; and, in once instance, to bar companies from hiring more part-time workers as long as current employees want to pick up more hours.
All of this goes to the heart of the question of how much control employers should be able to exercise over the lives of their employees. Obviously, people who are poor will do whatever they need to do in order to earn a paycheck that allows them to (barely) survive—even if that means sacrificing any semblance of free time in order to be available whenever the employer decides to demand they come in and work. This is the situation that exists now. It is one that countless employees of countless major American corporations have complained about, to us. It in essence forces people into economic bondage, while giving companies plausible deniability about their roles in the situation. Companies are given a pool of workers that are at their fingertips full-time, while paying only part-time wages.
Traditionally, America believes that workers must be paid for their work. That is not a controversial position. Any situation in which part-time workers are (even implicitly) expected to maintain full-time availability in case their job wants them to come in is unfair. These are, for the most part, shitty, low-paying jobs that you would not take if you could get something better. They do not pay enough to rule anyone's lives. Work schedules should be set with reasonable advance notice. Companies should be incentivized to make more workers full-time, instead of breeding an ever-larger work force composed of people who can't get enough hours to escape poverty. And no one should be expected to make themselves available outside their regularly scheduled work hours, unless they want to.
Time is money, employers. Pay the bill, or stop asking for your employees' time.