Part-Time Work and Other Flexible Options. ERIC
by Brown, Bettina Lankard
Options for flexible work schedules--once nonexistent--have become a
reality, with benefits for workers and employees alike. Job sharing, compressed
work weeks, reduced hours, work at home, and flextime have provided employees
with the means to realize a better balance between work and family and
an opportunity to engage simultaneously in more than one endeavor, e.g.,
school and work, two careers, and work and leisure. They can also lead
to economic and emotional stress and to limited opportunities for professional
growth. This Digest examines flexible work options, including the characteristics
of workers who select them, the organizations that offer them, and the
influence they have on worker satisfaction, performance, productivity,
and career progression.
FLEXIBLE STAFFING ARRANGEMENTS
Over the years, employers have established employment arrangements with
workers that include working in shifts, on "temporary" assignments, in
a part-time capacity, and through independent contract work. The impetus
for these arrangements is the organization's desire to realize its short-term
service and production goals and to reap the low-cost benefits of a contingent
Today, with businesses facing increasingly competitive markets and unprecedented
customer demands for services, the employment of workers in shifts to cover
a 24-hour day is increasing. In fact, one in five workers is hired to work
outside the typical 9-to-5 time slot ("No More Nine-to-Five" 1998). Manufacturing
companies have traditionally operated day and night, often to capitalize
on equipment usage. However, many other types of companies are now offering
their services around the clock, e.g., financial services, 24-hour banking
services, computer-related services, retail catalog sales, and supermarkets.
Unfortunately, those working the least attractive shifts (night) are typically
the least skilled and have the lowest incomes (ibid.).
Temporary workers, those hired for a specific, usually short-term, assignment,
are also increasing in numbers. Businesses that have cyclical staffing
needs, e.g., retailers, construction companies, and those that have unpredictable
demands, e.g., high tech companies, are frequent users of temporary workers.
About 10-12 percent of Hewlett Packard's workers, for example, are temps
(Galvin 1998). Some companies have such extensive needs for temporary workers
that they employ temporary agencies to hire, train, and manage these workers.
One such company, American Precision Plastics in Colorado, reports that
"90 percent of their 180 plant workers are temporary" (Lief 1997, p. 86).
The results of a survey conducted by the W. E. Upjohn Institute showed
the following configuration of temporary workers used by the 550 establishments
surveyed for the study (Houseman 1997, p. 6): 46% use workers from temporary
help agencies; 38% use short-term hires; 72% use regular part-time workers;
27% use on-call workers; and 44% use independent contract workers. Typically,
these workers receive lower wages and few, if any, benefits, thereby lowering
These employer-initiated flexible staffing arrangements, although appealing
to many workers, are designed to satisfy the needs of the employer. Flexible
scheduling arrangements, increasing in the workplace, are initiated to
meet the employee's needs, although the employers are reaping benefits
FLEXIBLE WORK SCHEDULES
PART-TIME WORK. Part-time workers are those who work less than a 40-hour
week either by choice or because it is the only alternative available to
them. Typically, these workers are females, who have compromised pay, benefits,
and security for the "privilege" of working reduced time. "Official government
earnings data show that part-time women earn on average significantly lower
hourly rates than their full-time counterparts" ("Using Part-Time Workers"
1997, p. E13). Often these women have other obligations that trigger their
desire to work part time, such as children at home, care of elderly family
members, continuing education, or the opportunity to pursue other interests
and hobbies. Some workers accept part-time jobs as an entry to full-time
employment with a firm. Others see it as a way to augment other income.
For example, from 1984 to 1993, the number of retired men aged 55-61 who
worked part time instead of full time so they could continue to receive
Social Security benefits jumped from 37% to 50% (McShulskis 1997). One
of the problems facing part-time workers is limiting their work hours to
the agreed-upon number. Many find that they are expected to accomplish
the same volume of work as those employed full time.
Part-timers have tended to be pigeonholed as low skilled and, in the
academic community, less likely to have advanced degrees (Leatherman 1997).
However, this characterization no longer holds as more professional workers
are electing part-time work. "The number of part-time professionals in
the U.S. has expanded from 3 million in 1989 to 4.5 million currently.
An estimated 70% of the companies employ part-time professionals who used
to be full time" ("Part-Time Professionals Push Positive Image" 1997, p.
944). According to a study by Catalyst, 46% of the respondents who had
switched from full- to part-time work reported an increase in productivity,
morale, commitment to the company, and retention (McShulskis 1998).
JOB SHARING. Job sharing has an appeal for professionals who want to
work less than full time and yet maintain their professional expertise
and status. By job sharing, two or three managers, for example, can coordinate
their management styles and expertise to perform the duties required for
a given job. Most of the time, these types of employment arrangements are
initiated by the two staff members who have a common interest in job sharing
and who propose the arrangement to their employer. For these workers, many
of whom are parents or caregivers, this alternative is preferable to a
compressed work week (restructuring the 40-hour work week into fewer days)
or flextime hours (working 8-hour days but at varying times) because these
latter options only "exacerbate the problems parents experience when they
work full time because of the need for extended day care hours" (Kane 1996,
FLEXTIME. Flextime is the most popular work option being adopted by
employee and employer alike. It is an option that allows employees to negotiate
their starting and quitting time. First introduced in Germany in the early
1960s, flextime was a response to the traffic congestion and transit problems
experienced by commuting employees. By 1970, the practice had spread throughout
Europe. In the United States, flextime was first introduced by Hewlett
Packard in 1972, where it was considered to be a low-cost employee benefit
(Conroy et al. 1997). Flextime is especially appealing because it allows
employees to work full time but at times that are convenient for their
schedule and life-style. It reaps benefits for the employer by offering
a low-cost method of providing personal time off, extending service hours
without overtime pay, and reducing absenteeism, tardiness, and turnover.
Also, by adopting flextime, management demonstrates its willingness to
respond to employee needs, thus enhancing recruitment (ibid.).
FACTORS INFLUENCING THE USE OF FLEXIBLE WORK OPTIONS
The use of flexible work options is affected by a variety of factors,
including union and government pressure and workplace demographic changes.
PRESSURES ON EMPLOYERS. The strike at United Parcel Service (UPS) supported
by the Teamsters Union triggered renewed union interest in the rights of
part-time workers. A central issue in the strike was the company's practice
of replacing good-paying, full-time jobs with low-paying, part-time jobs
having no benefits and no security. According to Teamster representatives,
38,000 of the 46,000 unionized workers UPS has added in the past 4 years
are part-time workers. Much of the Teamsters' criticism of UPS related
to reduced wages and benefits for part-time workers: part-time workers
wages averaged $9-$10 per hour in contrast to full-timers earnings of $19.95
per hour ("No Part-Time Job Explosion" 1997).
Hiring part-time, contingent, or independent workers to avoid paying
employee benefits is bringing many businesses under government scrutiny.
"Companies incorrectly classifying their independent workers (as other
than full-time employees), could be liable for unpaid overtime, unemployment,
and payroll taxes and workers' compensation and could face fines for violating
the Employee Retirement Income Security Act" (Adler 1998, p. 1). The Internal
Revenue Service offers a checklist of 20 criteria to help companies determine
an employee's classification as an independent contractor. "In general,
under these IRS criteria, the company cannot dictate matters such as where
and when the workers performs the job" (Adler 1998, p. 2).
WORKPLACE DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES. Changes in U.S. demographics as noted
in the Workforce 2000 Report represent another issue causing companies
to reexamine the use of flexible scheduling options. The report predicts
that the population of the country (and work force) will experience slower
growth, include a greater percentage of minorities and immigrants, be increasingly
composed of older workers, and have a smaller pool of young people to engage
in work (Conroy et al. 1997). Also, "if women persist in retiring relatively
early, the aging of the baby boom generation will mean a significant drop
in the percentage of women in the labor force after ages 45-54" (ibid.,
A tight labor market, which reflects the lowest unemployment rate in
25 years, is causing many employers to alter their approaches to employee
hiring and retention. "In a recent nationwide survey, 84% of executives
polled said their firms now offer either a formal or informal, flexible-hours
program for their employees" (Landolt 1997, p. 6). Even the traditional
steel mills are looking positively at flextime, allowing employees to compress
their work week as a means of getting and keeping needed workers (Hansen
Companies are also rethinking the issues of security and benefits as
more workers are employed under flexible staffing. "Companies like CIGNA
Corp., which has businesses in health care, insurance, and financial services,
have discovered that letting employees work part-time or compressed work
weeks with full benefits saves money in the long run by reducing turnover
and lowering training and recruitment costs. Of CIGNA's 37,000 employees,
12,000 work part time, a third of them in professional and managerial positions.
Any employee working 24 hours or more a week gets full benefits and part-timers
get promotions" (Lief 1997, p. 87).
IMPLICATIONS FOR WORK FORCE EDUCATION AND TRAINING
With an increasing number of professionals working part time, companies
are adopting new practices to facilitate employees' career development
and growth. Ernst & Young and New England Electric, for example, are
not only honoring requests for part-time employment, "they are also offering
part-time policies that allow professionals to make partner, retain management
responsibilities, compete for promotions and bonuses and encourage managers
to allow part timers to take on meaty assignments" (Tolliver 1997, p. 1).
The key to realizing staffing and scheduling options that provide the traditional
benefits is high skills. Workers who have the skills employers want will
be career resilient--able to work in a variety of settings and to have
their demands recognized. Educators, in preparing students with the academic,
vocational, and employability skills required for successful employment
must also promote self-directed learning and a spirit of entrepreneurship.
Those who aspire to work in managerial positions must be prepared with
skills for supervising, communicating, and coordinating the flexible employment
and alternative scheduling practices that will be increasingly demanded
by new work force entrants who reflect the changing demographics of the
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