Why some people have all the jobs

With careful Douglas training, women do accurate electrical assembly and installation work, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

“Some folks do all the marryin’ for the rest of us,” a single Southern friend once quipped, contemplating a twice-wed acquaintance preparing to tie the knot once again.

More and more, the same thing appears to be true of work. This thought first struck me a couple years back during my seemingly endless stretch of under and un-employment. A friend (who shall remain nameless since I know without asking that he – or she – would want it that way) was juggling four jobs at once: university teaching, a book contract, a weekly column for a national publication, and a public service post. By way of contrast, I at the time had none.

It didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, and it doesn’t now – even as I find myself suddenly switching roles. From no jobs, I’ve gone to having two: a full-time position in communications and a part-time teaching gig. My challenges are now the reverse of what they were before. I’ve gone from having no work at all to working all the time.

And apparently, I’m far from alone – in both experiences. Last week, I listened with grim fascination to a report on NPR’s On Point about America’s growing hordes of involuntary part-time workers. In recent years, the ratio of full to part-timers has been doing a flip-flop. Over just two decades many major retailers have gone from 70% or more full-timers to that percentage of part-timers, as the New York Times recently reported.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But, as it happens, it is. Here’s why: Part-timers can’t support themselves on the $8.00 or $10 an hour they make – especially given that employers often limit their hours to 10 or 15 a week. 15 times $10? You do the math.

So why don’t they just get another job? Because they can’t. Retailers are increasingly requiring what’s known in the industry as “open availability.” You may work only 10 hours a week, but you’re still expected to be ready and waiting 24/7.

Behind this disturbing trend is increasingly sophisticated software that now enables companies to track customer flow by 15-minute increments, calling in part-timers for the brief windows, sometimes just a couple of hours, when their labor will contribute most to the company’s bottom line. What if you need to plan for childcare or you want to take a college class? The response is a simple one, just two words: Too bad.

Most appalling of all (at least to me) is the practice known as “on-call scheduling,” where employees are required to call in two hours before a shift would begin to find out if they’ll be working. Are they paid for blocking out this time? No, they are not.

As a growing number of critics like this one are noting, this essentially amounts to corporate welfare. In shifting the costs to employees, businesses are pushing many of them into poverty. The rest of us pay for food stamps and emergency room visits to compensate for business refusal to pay a living wage – or even to allow their employees a chance to pick up hours elsewhere. (And this issue isn’t just limited to part-timers either – ongoing contract negotiations in Cincinnati are bringing attention to the fact that many of the city’s full-time janitors qualify for programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance, as the Nation described last week.) Romney’s 47% have nothing on Wal-Mart and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, high-end salaried workers – where added hours mean added profits for employers without added costs – are seeing their hours shoot through the roof. Within days of hearing the NPR report on involuntary part-timers, I also read an essay by a mom who’d just given up her corporate law job, finding it impossible to balance the demands of work with the other demands of life.

My own situation is, of course, quite different. For one thing, I don’t have kids (though I do have other interests that also take time). For another, the hours of my full-time job have been entirely reasonable. It’s adding another job on top of it that’s made things hard to manage. But like many workers laid-off during the Great Recession, I returned to the workforce in a position that pays substantially less than my former. Yes, I love teaching, but I can also use the money.

This morning I snapped wide awake at 4:30 am. This was a frequent occurrence during the turbo-charged stress of my job search, but this is the first time it’s happened since being re-employed. At first, I was mystified about what lay behind it. But two hours later, it’s come to me: There was something I needed to say.