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Service sector drives part-time work force

(ran Pasco, Hernando editions)

As service-sector jobs continue to supplant higher-paying manufacturing positions, companies from restaurants to banks are filling their ranks with more part-time workers.

Traditional full-time positions such as grocery baggers and tellers are increasingly likely to be part-time jobs. And many part-time workers would prefer full-time work, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics and other federal data.

Though many embrace the flexibility of a part-time job, others find themselves unwilling members of this emerging permanent part-time class. Not only do part-timers work fewer hours, they earn less per hour than their full-time counterparts, bureau data shows.

The short-term impact has helped boost productivity and corporate profits during a period of uneven job growth. But long-term implications include diminished wage expectations and greater economic insecurity for working families, some economists say.

August employment figures show unemployment virtually unchanged at 5.4 percent from 5.5 percent the month before. Those working involuntarily part time remained unchanged from July at about 3 percent of the work force.

Meanwhile, the total numbers of those working part time continued to grow.

Brent Lucas was a full-time wire transfer employee in Bank of America Corp.'s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters making $25,500 a year.

Last year he caught wind of the company's merger with FleetBoston Financial Corp. Fearing a layoff, he decided to accept a part-time personal banker-in-training position at a Gastonia, N.C., branch.

Instead, he says he ended up working as a "glorified teller" making some $7,000 less a year. The bank paid him benefits based on a 25-hour workweek. Unable to find full-time work elsewhere in the company, he left the bank in July to take a 40-hour-a-week job feeding steel and aluminum into a punch turret machine at Freightliner's parts plant in Gastonia.

"I would rather be working at a bank," he says. "But the money's better here, and the benefits are better."

Banking, health care and retail increasingly are filling certain positions with part-timers. While Bank of America pays benefits to part-time workers, most employers don't, particularly for those working 30 or fewer hours a week.

Last month Bank of America laid off _ and shuffled and hired into part-time positions _ hundreds of former FleetBoston branch workers across the Northeast. The action drew alarm from legislators. Two weeks later chief executive Ken Lewis told Massachusetts lawmakers he will base one of the company's four major business lines in Boston.

Bank of America began hiring more part-timers as tellers and in other positions two years ago as the company rolled out new branches nationwide. Virtually all of the hundreds of teller positions listed on its employment Web site now are for part-time work _ typically 20 or 30 hours a week, but as few as three hours a week for an opening in Port Townsend, Wash.

Drawing lessons it learned from retail and grocery industries, the bank uses part-time workers as a way to "respond more to customers and to help (employees) balance their own lives," bank spokeswoman Diane Wagner says.

Branch staff have said hiring part-time workers also is a way to shave costs.

Wachovia Corp. spokeswoman Mary Beth Navarro says it tries to fill branches primarily with full-time tellers "because we find less turnover."

Of the Charlotte-based bank's 2,106 online job listings last week, just 137 were part-time positions. But of those, most all were for tellers. "We're probably using more part-time tellers now because we expanded to Saturday hours," Navarro says.

An increasing reliance on part-time workers in service sectors with weak growth makes it harder for some to find full-time work.

Growth of total service-sector jobs continues to outpace manufacturing jobs 3-to-1. With notable exceptions in technology and certain other sectors, most service jobs pay less than manufacturing positions. And in banking, retail, grocery and other industries, an increasing number of those service positions are part time.

Alan Reynolds, a Reagan administration economic policymaker and now a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, says an increase in part-time workers can be a harbinger of a stronger jobs market.

Reynolds, the optimistic antithesis of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "economic girlie men," reels off the unprecedented forces that conspired against economic growth over the past three years: the 2001 recession, the aftershock of the 9/11 attacks, corporate scandals, ensuing corporate regulation, business uncertainty, the war in Iraq, oil price spikes.

Given all that, "Something on the order of 5 percent (unemployment) is pretty good," he says. "By the way, in Germany it's 10 percent."

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