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.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “Why some people have all the jobs

  1. Excel­lent, as always.

    Maybe in a fol­lowup post, you can address the fact that the employed are viewed by employ­ers as more ‘employ­able’ than the unem­ployed. Thus, those who have jobs get more jobs offered to them, whereas those who need jobs go with­out. It seems back­wards to me, but not unlike the fact that it takes money to make money, or it takes con­nec­tions to make connections.

    By the way, I was in a sit­u­a­tion once sim­i­lar to “on-call sched­ul­ing.” I worked as a laborer for a roof­ing com­pany and had to call in each day to find out if there was a job site and where it was. I was not com­pen­sated for my travel time or gas. I also was not offered health ben­e­fits or over­time. It was a small busi­ness and was prob­a­bly barely sol­vent. I was 18 and it was my first job, so I didn’t know any bet­ter and didn’t com­plain. I was just happy to have paid work. Now, sev­eral decades later, I wouldn’t will­ingly put up with that.

    • THANK YOU! And thanks for not giv­ing up on me dur­ing my long hia­tus. It’s great to be back with my fel­low denizens of Plan B Nation. :-)

      And re: the unem­ploy­a­bil­ity of the unem­ployed — I’m pretty sure I’ve writ­ten about that some­where, but you’re right, worth revisiting.

      Have a good Thanks­giv­ing.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why some peo­ple have all the jobsMy Profile

      • I too am pretty sure you have writ­ten about the unem­ploy­a­bil­ity of the unem­ployed, but I can’t find it. What cat­e­gory would it be under?

  2. Well said indeed! Excel­lent, stright­foward pre­sen­ta­tion of a prob­lem so many of us face. How are we to lift our­selves and, by exten­sion this econ­omy out of the mud if we can’t find a work­able solu­tion to this problem?

  3. What a beau­ti­ful and well argu­mented piece, talk­ing of a trend that is less easy to iden­tify. All the sparkle points !!

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