Making Part-time Work Effective

January 1, 1995
It's no secret that more and more companies are hiring low-wage workers on a part-time basis. Many, especially retailers, banks and restaurants, find that a part-time work force allows them greater flexibility in scheduling and makes them less affected by turnover.

Although shorter hours may suit many students and "mommy trackers" just fine, some people who find themselves in part-time arrangements don't always consider the situation ideal. Not only do they wind up with fewer hours than they need to make ends meet, they don't receive the benefits that full-time employees do. "You have to make a distinction between voluntary and involuntary part-time workers," says Phil Rhones, chief of the Division of Labor at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. "And there are certainly a greater number of people now who are involuntary part-time workers than at any time in the past."

Today, Chicago-based Sears Roebuck & Co. has virtually all its non-commissioned associates working part-time. In fact, a part-time work force is the industry norm, as retailing giants such as K-Mart, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penny have adopted similar strategies. "In terms of attracting and retaining the best people, part-time work presents some difficulties," admits Sally Hartmann, manager of measurements and assessment systems at Sears. Adds Janet Fuersich, director of compensation consulting for New York City-based Coopers & Lybrand: "Workers who receive lower pay and fewer benefits are less likely to feel committed to their employer."

Some companies are trying to change all that. They're working to have the best of both worlds: employees who feel linked to the company, but don't expect the same benefits package as full-time workers. To accomplish this, companies such as Sears and Irvine, California-based Taco Bell Corp. have implemented an array of programs and activities that make the work environment more exciting and fun. For example, they have employee-of-the-month awards, for which winners receive cash or merchandise. They also give prizes, such as gift certificates or travel packages, for meeting certain sales criteria or reaching specific objectives. In addition, some facilities hold optional, after-hour activities, such as picnics or softball games, for their workers.

Other companies, such as Seattle-based SeaFirst Bank, have tried to build some equity into the process. Its "casual" workers—those who work less than 17.5 hours a week—receive a 15% pay premium to compensate for their lack of benefits. Casual workers include tellers, phone operators and others. The firm's full-time and part-time workers (the latter work more than 17.5 hours a week but less than 40), receive regular benefits.

What's more, the bank—which pays its workers the prevailing market rate for the Seattle area—also provides an abundance of training opportunities so that casual workers can improve their skills and move up in the organization. And these employees are entitled to use any and all of the company's programs—whether it's the bank's health club, career counseling or child-care facilities.

The result? Lower turnover than competitors and a better reputation as an employer. Two years ago, the bank ranked among the 10 best employers in Seattle. Not surprisingly, all this translates directly to improved bottom-line profits. Says Vicki Rohr, SeaFirst's work, home and health coordinator: "We want to do everything we can to help people work together as a team. We want everyone to feel that they're an important part of the organization."

Personnel Journal, January 1995, Vol. 74, No. 1, p. 92.