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How Part-Timers Fare in US Economy

With companies seeking flexibility, some part-time workers can't get enough hours.

Joel Martin is a box lifter and truck driver. For eight years, he's moved packages weighing 70 pounds or more around warehouses, often reporting to work in the middle of the night.

He counts his blessings for his job - it pays well and has decent health-care benefits. But, he says, it's much less than he bargained for when he was hired, fresh out of high school.

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At that time, he heard talk of promotion, of the opportunity to work as a full-time package-delivery driver. Now, he says, "I just didn't know it was going to be so long. They keep saying, 'Hopefully soon.' I started getting angry just coming to work."

Mr. Martin is a part-time worker for United Parcel Service - and as such is a focal point of one of the largest strikes in the nation's history. The Teamsters Union, sponsoring the strike now in its 11th day, calls the growing number of part-time workers at the company the issue underlying the protest.

But the debate over part-time workers in America's economy is less simple than it's been laid out to be by the unions. The number of part-time workers is soaring at UPS - but not in the US work force as a whole.

To many economists, part-time employees are not even a major labor issue. "Part-time work has not really changed over the last two decades," says David Levine, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

What does make the UPS strike relevant to employees across the country and in a variety of job sectors is the phenomenon that's driving UPS to hire more part-time workers: the need for flexibility. That, says Robert Ginsburg, research director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research in Chicago, is at the heart of a changing economy worldwide. How UPS and the Teamsters resolve this conflict could help point out the direction this new economy will take.

"You have lots of different industries reacting to the same problem in different ways," he says. "Some will push their employees to work overtime, others hire part-timers, still others will outsource. It's all a desire for flexibility, trying to reduce short-term costs and avoid long-term responsibility."

The typical part-timer

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While tomorrow's part-time work force is still being shaped, today's typical part-timer looks similar to a part-timer in the 1970s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

She's female, between the ages of 24 and 55, white, and married. She works in the service industry, answering call-in orders for a catalog company, entering computer data, or holding down a health-care related job. She likely does not have full benefits or the same kind of loyalty to her company as full-time employees. Statistics show she wants to work limited hours.

In fact, more than 80 percent of part-time employees say they want part-time work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these workers are in school and seek to make money on the side. Others are retired but need extra income or want to stay active.

Wanting to work more hours

Economists, however, say this is one characteristic that is in flux. "There are voluntary part-timers and involuntary part-timers - or people who report they would want to work full time if given the choice," says Francoise Carre, research program director at Radcliffe Public Policy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. "The involuntary is the part that has driven the growth in recent years."

Economists warn against painting any one picture of part-time workers. Government statistics lump anyone who works from one to 34 hours a week into the part-time category. That can include 16-year-old grocery store clerks or 60-year-olds working after they retire. Some 4.5 million of the nation's 30 million part-time employees are over age 55 (see box at left).

Many UPS workers fall into this spectrum of part-timers. They differ from typical part-time workers in age, race, gender - and perhaps most notably because of the full medical, dental, vision, and retirement benefits they earn and the length of time they stay with UPS.

But they also are fairly typical of the part-timer group - especially in their diversity. While Joel Martin took his job in hopes of turning his part-time work into a full-time position, Elton Thomas, who has worked part time for 16 years at UPS, has no interest in becoming full time.

Mr. Thomas is a soft-spoken man in his 30s, with a wife and a child. He inspects damaged packages when they come in, tending to those in the best shape and returning others. He worked for a brief time as a UPS driver, but decided he preferred the less-physically demanding job in the shipping facility and went back. He likes the company, but he just didn't like driving.

UPS officials say 50 percent of their approximately 115,000 part-time employees are college students, who appreciate the money they can make while working odd hours and still attending school.

But UPS acknowledges a changing work structure that could result in more disgruntled part-time workers. Traditionally, says UPS spokesman Mark Dickens, almost everyone at the company starts off as a part-timer and works up to become a full-time driver. Four out of every 5 new full-time employees must come from the ranks of part-timers, according to UPS's latest contract with the Teamsters.

The problem, he says, is that the company's most recent growth has come in the air-express division, making it more dependent on a delivery schedule where short bursts of intense work are required - meaning shifts that last three or four hours. There is more of a need today for new employees to stay as part-timers rather than move up to drivers. The disconnect occurs when part-timers are hired thinking they will move up, but there are no new drivers' jobs to move into.

It's that shift in UPS's structure that worries union leaders about the future and puts part-time workers at the center of the strike.

It's that demand for flexibility that makes UPS look like so many other companies in today's changing economy, analysts say. "We haven't really resolved in the economy how this transition is occurring," says Dr. Ginsburg in Chicago.

"Productivity is changing. Industries are changing. That's what's involved in the UPS strike. And no matter how this gets resolved, it won't be the final word on the issue."


* More than 30 million Americans are part-time employees - meaning they work from one to 34 hours a week.

* The service industry (clerical, health care) has 11.5 million part-timers.

* 8.2 million part-timers work in the wholesale or retail trade. (restaurants, clothing stores).

* 81.4 percent of part-timers are "voluntary" - they don't want to work more hours; 18.6 percent are involuntary.

* Part-timers made up 18.3 percent of the US work force in 1996 and 17.3 percent in '87.

* Part-timers between the ages of 16 to 24 make up 27 percent of the part-time work force; those between the ages of 25 to 54 make up 57 percent.

* 38 percent of part-timers are men; 62 percent are women.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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