Part-time work can be full-time trouble

There's part time - and then there's the shift that Olivia Smith-Bey, 20, said she worked Wednesday at McDonald's.

A stunning 56 minutes.

"I got there at 2 p.m. and clocked in," she said. "Not even an hour."

There wasn't enough business, she said, so she was sent home, after spending $2.25 each way to get from her house in West Philadelphia to the restaurant in North Philadelphia.

"I was upset," she said.

Smith-Bey could be Exhibit A in a study of part-time workers that is to be released Thursday by Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, in New Brunswick.

Exhibit B: Susan Weinberg, 65, of Mount Airy.

She works 15 hours a week for a nonprofit that helps senior citizens, earns well above minimum wage, and is "ecstatic" about her work-life balance. "It wasn't for economic reasons," she said. "I make a little bit more money, and that's nice."

Smith-Bey also clocks about 15 hours a week, but would love full-time employment to raise college tuition. She struggles to make ends meet on the $7.65 she earns an hour.

Exhibit A and Exhibit B: "It's a tale of two workforces," said Cliff Zukin, a public-policy professor and study coauthor.

He and fellow public-policy professor Carl Van Horn, who directs the Heldrich Center, polled a representative sample of nearly 1,000 workers to try to understand the economics and motivations of part-time workers, particularly because, as of May, 26 million, or nearly one in five workers, were employed part time.

Of those, 19.6 million, the report said, choose to work part time - perhaps because they are in school, or taking care of children, or, like Susan Weinberg, they are working after retiring.

The number of voluntary part-timers, the study said, has increased 400,000 workers since the start of the 2007 recession.

But the number of people in Smith-Bey's situation - those who want more work - grew 44.4 percent, from 4.5 million in 2007 to a height of 9.4 million at the worst of the recession to the new normal of 6.5 million in May.

"It was very interesting that the voluntary and involuntary part-time workers have many of the same gripes about their circumstances," Van Horn said, "but they perceive them differently. Voluntary workers are happy, because they made this decision. But the involuntary are forced into this decision."

Why are so many more workers part time?

Van Horn said economists kicked around two explanations. One is that the number of involuntary part-time workers indicates an economy that still needs to grow. "That's a cyclical explanation."

The other is structural. "Employers are thinking differently about how they use their workforces," Van Horn said. "Companies want a more on-demand and flexible workforce."

One in four involuntary part-timers is Hispanic. Half are white; 15 percent are African American.

Among voluntary part-timers, 72 percent are white.

Involuntary part-timers struggle financially, with 78 percent saying they are in poor or fair shape.

The study asked workers what would help their situations. Most advocate a minimum-wage increase.

That's why Popeyes cashier Ivy Berry is active in the campaign to get fast-food workers $15 an hour. Berry, 28, lives with her two children and her mother in South Philadelphia and works about 16 hours a week at $7.50 an hour.

She'd like full-time work.

"The money I'm getting is not helping me get independent," she said. "I'm just caught in a cycle."