I recently met Luis, a Miami father of two young children, who sits atop his lawn mower like it's a throne. Luis used to be a mortgage banker, but he's been out of work for more than 20 months. Like others, he has become frustrated with the job hunt.
One day, while Luis was mowing his lawn, a neighbor offered him a few bucks to do his yard. Word spread, plentiful rain caused Miami lawns to grow tall and Luis now has cobbled together enough business to consider mowing lawns a part-time job.
"At least it's some income," said the humbled executive, who asked me not to use his full name.
Today the face of the part-time worker is drastically different from what it was only a few years ago. It used to look more like mine, a mother who wanted to better balance her work and family. It might also have been the college student who needed to earn income while in school.
But the recession and high unemployment have changed the once coveted status. Increasingly, the face of the part-time worker has become the dad jumping at any chance of income or the college graduate desperate for an opportunity to get a foot in the door. It might be the loyal worker whose weekly hours have been cut to save the company a few bucks or the desperate former executive patching together jobs to pay rent.
As of September, about 8.8 million Americans are working part time while desiring full-time work. That number is double what it was in 2007, just before the recession began. And, another roughly 2.6 million people want work — even part-time work — but have stopped actively looking. Combined, the "underemployed" part-timers who want full-time work; and "discouraged" people who have stopped looking make up 16.2 percent of working-age Americans. The Labor Department compiles the figure to assess how many people want full-time work and can't find it — a number the unemployment rate alone doesn't capture.
"There are a ton of desperate people who can't get hours they need to provide for their families," said Heidi Shierholz, labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute. For the past few years, there hasn't been any significant improvement.
That's the case for Chaim LieberPerson, a former parochial grade school principal. LieberPerson dashes between the office of the Miami Book Fair International and his children's school for dismissal. He's on call to handle child care now that his wife is the full-time wage earner.
In June, when the school LieberPerson worked at restructured its administration, his job was eliminated. Now, he works two part-time jobs and still lacks a full-time income — one as a project worker for the book fair and the other as a Sunday school teacher. LieberPerson says he enjoys the flexibility of his current schedule but needs a full-time job with benefits. "In most jobs in America, you can't have health care unless you're full-time. Without that coverage, we all know how quickly your fortunes could change."
Indeed, part-time workers still significantly lag full-time employees in the benefits they are offered. Only about 25 percent of part-time workers have access to employer-sponsored benefits such as medical or paid sick leave, according to a 2011 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When consumer demand picks up, companies will likely boost the hours of their part-timers before they add jobs, economists say. It means they have room to expand without hiring.
In some cases, that's already happening. After graduating from college this spring, Chaya Muldavin took part-time digital media work on a contract basis for a national cable television network, where she had completed an internship. To support herself, she also took a job selling cosmetics at a department store. "It was exhausting because I really didn't have a day off."
A few weeks ago, the network hired her full-time. "They saw I had the skills and they realized they had enough for me to do full-time," she says. "I consider it part luck, part opportunity."
Suzanne Hodes, chief financial officer of Career Xchange, a Florida staffing company, said with the economy still sputtering, companies are risk-adverse about hiring. "If their business has picked up, they don't know if it's short term or long term."
That's why part-time hiring has become appealing, she says. "If business continues to pick up, they have the option to add hours. If business drops off, they let the part-timer go and pick up the ball themselves again." In most cases, the part-timer is well aware of the instability. Most continue job hunting, she said.