The number of workers stringing together part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time employment remains at historically high levels more than five years after the recession ended, another sign that the economic recovery has yet to reach millions of people in New England and across the country.
Historically, the numbers of so-called involuntary part-time workers increase during recessions and their immediate aftermaths as companies cut hours and cautiously add employees. Once the economy picks up, those numbers typically fall quickly.
But today some 7 million Americans are working part time even though they want full- time jobs — nearly 3 million more than in 2007, when the last recession began, according to the Labor Department.
“It is a cause for alarm,” said John Silvia, chief economist for Wells Fargo & Co., in Charlotte, N.C. “I don’t think since World War II we’ve seen this kind of dislocation.”
Silvia and other economists worry that the high levels of involuntary part-time work indicate a “new normal” in which companies increasingly rely on part-time rather than full-time employees, much as they have replaced full-time, permanent positions with temporary or contract workers. As with temps and contractors, having more part-timers allows employers to cut costs, since the workers often do not qualify for health insurance and other benefits.
Its also increases employers’ flexibility to ramp up or cut their workforces as economic conditions change, economists said.
Jim O’Sullivan, the chief US economist at High Frequency Economics, a forecasting firm in Valhalla, N.Y., said the number of part-time workers who want but can’t find full-time jobs has shrunk to less than 5 percent of the total labor force from 6 percent during the worst of the recession, which ended in June 2009. Those numbers should continue to decline as the economy improves, he said.
But, O’Sullivan added, “Will it return to prerecession levels? Probably not. But I don’t expect to see the unemployment rate at [the prerecession low of] 4.5 percent in a few years, either.”
The October unemployment rate was 5.8 nationally and 6 percent in Massachusetts.
The jump in the number of part-time workers extends beyond industries that have traditionally used large numbers of these employees, such as restaurants and retail. The number of involuntary part-timers in finance, for example, surged more than 75 percent between 2007 and 2013, to nearly 45,000, according to the Labor Department.
In hospitals, involuntary part-time workers have doubled to more than 100,000 since 2007.
Jewel Ingalls , 29, of Newton, N.H., studied for two years at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill to earn an associate’s degree and become a radiologic technologist. When she graduated in May, she took a per diem job at Lawrence General Hospital, working unscheduled shifts as they opened up. The pay was good but the hours were sporadic and unpredictable; she never knew if she would be working two or 20 days a month.
This fall, she landed another job with a set schedule at another hospital, but she’s still working part time, 17 hours a week. Ingalls said she delivers important radiation treatments to patients, but does not qualify for health care benefits through her employer.
To help makes ends meet, she works one day a week as a hairdresser, her prior profession.
“You almost have to have another job,” Ingalls said. “You need to have a back up until that position opens up and you get that full-time spot somewhere.”
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, may be contributing to some employers’ reluctance to hire full-time workers because the law requires businesses with more than 50 full-time employees to provide health insurance or pay a government fee. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recently released a survey of employers that found 5 percent of employers would increase part-time hiring in response to the new health care act, while 11.3 percent said they would reduce full-time hiring.
Kate Nelson of Beverly said she should be in her prime earning years, but instead must piece together an income working as an adjunct, or part-time, instructor at a community college and a training consultant to nonprofits — work that “comes and goes,” she said.
Now 58, she has taught writing and English at the school since 2010. The number of courses she teaches each semester varies; it might be one, but usually it is two. The maximum is three, which she is teaching this semester. Her income from teaching is under $15,000 a year, without benefits, she said.
Nelson said she has hoped for a full-time position at the community college but no longer believes that will happen. She has sought other jobs, too, applying for executive assistant positions in her search for full-time work, but without success.
“I’ve made my peace with the part-time world,” Nelson said. “But I still feel like I have a lot to contribute.”
Some economists doubt the increase in part-time employment represents a permanent change in the labor force.
Scott Anderson, chief economist for Bank of the West in San Francisco, said the severity of the last recession means that the economy just needs more time to heal. Still, he said, the number of involuntary part-time workers is nowhere near normal levels.
“There’s not a lot of choices for folks,” he said. “There’s not enough full-time jobs.”
David Foy, 45, of Dorchester, can’t wait years. A part-time shuttle bus assistant at Logan Airport, he recently had his 25 hours a week cut to fewer than 20, without warning. Before his hours were cut, Foy, a single father with an 18-year-old daughter, was just getting by on about $200 a week. Foy is now job hunting, hoping to land a full-time security job.
In the meantime, paying rent, utility, and grocery bills has been a struggle. He doe not own a car. He has no retirement or savings account.
“The good thing is,” Foy said, “my daughter has a part-time job also.”