Personal Finance

Wanting Work, but Stuck in Part-Time Purgatory

Allison Linn
Peter Dazeley | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

Bonnie Gray knows there are people out there who are worse off than she is. After all, at least she has a job.

It's just not a full-time gig.Like many other Americans, she works part time and it's barely enough to pay for food, fuel and shelter. Millions of Americans were working part time in November but they would like to have been working full time. These so-called "involuntary part-time workers" are an example of some of the stubborn pockets of weakness that remain in the labor market even as the jobs picture improves very slowly.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that nearly 8.2 million people classified themselves as involuntary part-time workers in November, meaning that they settled for less work because they couldn't get more. That's around double the number of involuntary part-timers in 2006, before the nation went into recession and entered a prolonged period of weak recovery.

A separate group of more than 18 million people were working part-time in November for non-economic reasons, either because they are in school or they want to spend more time with their children, for example.

The number of people who are involuntarily underemployed has gone down since it hit 9 million in the depths of the recession, but progress has been slow and rocky.

'A Demand Problem'

For people like Gray, 63, improvement can't come soon enough.

Gray, who lives in Cary, Ill., for years worked two jobs: a full-time administrative job and, for extra money, a part-time cashier job at a major home retailer. She was laid off from her full-time position, which paid close to $16 an hour, in January of 2012.

She was left with a part-time job that pays $12.40 an hour. That plus some unemployment compensation she receives is barely enough to cover her mortgage and other expenses. She sometimes relies on her church for food, and worries what will happen when the unemployment runs out at the end of the year.

She's spent nearly a year looking for another receptionist or administrative position.

"I'm on the computer, it seems, 24/7. I am networking. I've walked out my resume to 83 companies," she said. She's also taken classes on how to interview and on invoicing, and she plans to take another one on PowerPoint.

She's had many job interviews in the past 12 months, but no full-time job offer.

Gray said she can't work any more hours as a cashier because a tumor on her foot makes it difficult to stand for a long time.

According to her doctor, the mass isn't cancerous, she said, but she can't afford to have it removed. Her insurance as a part-time worker wouldn't be enough to cover the procedure and rehabilitation.

Gray will turn 64 in February, which means she won't qualify for Medicare for another year. Until then, she said, she needs a job that offers health insurance.

She's hoping to avoid dipping into Social Security for as long as possible because the longer she waits, the more she stands to collect.

"I was actually hoping to hang on until 70," she said.

She may still be in for a tough slog. Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said the basic issue plaguing involuntary part-time workers like Gray is the same one plaguing the overall labor market: There's just not enough demand to compel employers to add to their labor costs substantially.

Shierholz said she expects involuntary part-time workers to gradually see improvements but "it is a going to take a long time."

"I think by far the dominant reason that we aren't seeing employment in both dimensions — full (time) people or ramping up hours for workers that already are there — is just a demand problem," she said.

Once employers have more work that needs to be done, they'll add more hours for people to do it.

'Now I Have to Watch Everything'

Debbie Fiore doesn't see that happening any time soon at the small company where she works.

Fiore, who lives in Nottingham, Md., lost her full-time job with a long-term care company nearly two years ago, and has struggled for more than a year to find another job.

A friend connected her with a small company that hired and trained her for an accounts payable and receivable job. She works about 25 hours a week and makes about half what she used to.

Fiore, who turns 57 this week, and her husband struggle to pay their bills. It's not the situation she envisioned they would be in heading into their golden years.

"We're basically living paycheck to paycheck. We're not able to save anything for the future at this point. There's hardly any emergency money if an emergency comes up," she said.

She's immensely grateful for the job she has, and said she loves the work. But financial worries weigh heavily on her.

"I think my attitude, my demeanor has changed," she said. "I used to be a very carefree, fun person, and now I have to watch everything."