If you get laid off, unemployment benefits help pay the bills while you look for another job. But, if your employer limits your hours to part time despite your desire to work more, you are “underemployed” and there are fewer resources to help make ends meet.
Examining the plight of workers who are involuntarily part time is the work of College of Social Work professor Jaeseung Kim, who was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from WorkRise, a research-to-action network on jobs, workers and mobility hosted by the Urban Institute.
Kim’s research is investigating the economic and personal fallout of underemployment, including the consequences of erratic weekends, shift cancellations or lack of control over hours. Kim and his team are looking at data from two large national surveys — the Current Population Survey, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation.
Before the pandemic, estimates showed that about 4 percent of the U.S. workforce was defined as underemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Kim and co-principal investigator Lonnie Golden, an economics professor at Penn State Abington, argue for a broader definition of underemployment that includes any part-time worker who wants more hours, not just those who want full-time work. By their measure, Kim and Golden estimate about one in 10 workers are underemployed. The rates are higher for Black and Latinx workers, hourly workers, young workers and part-time workers who have variable hours rather than a set schedule.
One area of their research focus examines how these workers fared during the early days of the pandemic and how they are doing now as businesses are reporting difficulty finding workers.
“During the pandemic, a lot of workers were losing their jobs or having their hours cut. So we will be looking at the implications of such conditions and its impact,” Kim says. “The workers have a limited control over their work hours — they wanted to work more, but they couldn’t get it. So how is the limited control really influencing worker well-being?”
Researchers hope to get to the heart of the matter — the effect on individual lives and well-being — with surveys they are conducting with about 1,000 U.S. workers, half of them part-time workers.
“One preliminary finding is that underemployed workers are more likely to experience multiple sources of material hardship, such as they couldn’t pay the utility bills or buy enough food,” Kim says. “The other finding we discover is that they are reporting that their health is worse compared to full-time workers or voluntary part-time workers.”
These workers also report lower job satisfaction, greater work stress and more work-family time conflicts.
One goal of the research is to create policy recommendations that federal, state and local governments could consider to help prevent underemployment and to alleviate some of the negative issues associated with it.
Recommendations could include expansion of laws or regulations, such as those that require larger employers to offer available work hours to existing employees rather than hiring new workers, or regulations requiring businesses to treat part-time and full-time workers equally when it comes to pay raises and benefits accrual.
Other suggestions could include setting a minimum number of guaranteed weekly work
hours, an increase
in the minimum wage, lost-wage assistance for employees whose hours are cut when a company is trying to avoid layoffs and changing the eligibility threshold for public assistance programs to include workers who cannot get more work hours.
“A lot of states and cities are actually implementing such laws,” Kim says. “For example, San Francisco’s Retail Worker Bill of Rights includes part-time parity.”
Kim says his project should wrap up next year and he expects to report his findings in July 2023.
Kim’s project is one of 22 funded by WorkRise, which awarded a total of $2.4 million in research grants to inform and drive action toward strengthening economic security and mobility for workers earning low wages in the U.S. labor market, with an emphasis on addressing equity gaps affecting Black workers and other workers of color, immigrants and women.