In 2012, E. Dumond was working as a nurse in the obstetrics and gynecology ward of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. The hospital is the flagship institution of Miami-Dade County's Jackson Health System (JHS).
The big health-care provider wasn't doing well at the time. Coming out of the recession and facing stiff competition, JHS had lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the previous four years. So the company decided to lay off 900 full-time employees and hire 350 workers on a flexible schedule in a bid to make the troubled network more competitive. Ms. Dumond was one of the employees who received a notice: She could either come back to work as a part-timer or look for work elsewhere.
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The native of Haiti took the part-time job, which was working as a nurse at a local county jail serviced by JHS. Over the past two years, she has logged about the same number of hours as she did when she was a full-time employee. She enjoys working at the correctional facility, has kept most of her benefits, and is paid about $4 per hour more, because jail wages are higher than those in the hospitals.
Still, she wants to go back to being officially full time. Last December, when a family member died, she was told she would have to use vacation days to attend his funeral, rather than take a funeral leave, which is offered only to full-time employees. And while her hours have been consistent in the past, she has no guarantee that they won't be cut in the future.
Dumond's predicament reflects a new reality behind the rise of the independent economy. Traditionally, temporary and other contingent workers have been the first fired, first rehired in times of economic distress. The recent downturn, in one way, was no exception. Companies quickly shed their payrolls of temporary employees early in the recession – their numbers declined by more than 30 percent from the beginning of the downturn to its lowest point.
But this time, almost five years after the official end of the recession, many companies haven't sought to rehire workers and return to prerecession employment levels. Instead, some have found that having a large nontraditional workforce makes them more competitive.
"Companies are shifting the way they're choosing to hire. They want more flexibility, more agility," says Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, the firm that produces MBO Partners's annual "State of Independence in America" report. "In theory you can fire someone in a day, [but] the reality of how companies view employees is that it's very hard to fire people."
A more adaptable workforce can help companies more easily scale production up or down to meet demand. While industries across the board are embracing a less permanent workforce, the technology and health-care industries have been among the most aggressive in adopting it.
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"Companies are going to become less of a parent," providing benefits and ushering their workers down predetermined career paths, says Gene Zaino, president and CEO of MBO Partners. Instead, he says, they "are going to have to do whatever they need to do to be agile and competitive."
That was certainly the professed rationale behind the JHS moves. The health-care system's president and CEO, Carlos Migoya, argued at the time that he had no other choice.
"I would not have made these decisions ... if there were any credible alternative," he told county commissioners in March 2012, ahead of the pink slips being sent out. He added: "It's genuinely about getting our workforce to the right size for the business we are doing today."
In 2012, the hospital system turned a profit for the first time since 2007, which Mr. Migoya credited in part to the $97 million in savings from reduced personnel expenses. It's set to see another surplus this year. JHS has hired back many of the workers it laid off, though the number of full-time staff is still not as high as it was before the peak, says Martha Baker, president of SEIU Local 1991, a union that represents 4,000 nurses, physicians, and other medical professionals at the health-care firm. Dumond is one of those still considered part time.
"Now it's been almost two years, and I'm still working my full-time hours" without being considered a full-time employee, she says. "To be more secure, I would like my status to be changed."