Over 32.1 million working people in the United States—more than one in five—worked part-time in 2021. Part-time workers were hit hard in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic; there has been a net loss of over 1 million part-time jobs between 2019 and 2021, with women accounting for 100% of the jobs lost. Yet between February and April 2020, the number of people working part time for “economic reasons” (i.e., involuntarily) more than doubled. Although this number has since declined to below pre-pandemic levels, new variants of the coronavirus and ongoing economic uncertainty continue to create instability for the part-time workforce.
Part-time workers—most of whom are women—are far more likely than full-time workers to hold jobs that require them to show up in person, notwithstanding the ongoing risks of COVID-19 infection. Some people work part time to support their families while caring for loved ones, going to school, or attending to other obligations—but find themselves penalized for working part-time work in terms of pay, benefits, stability, and opportunities to advance on the job. And still others work part time because their employers, particularly in low-paying service industries, rarely offer full-time positions, and some employees—especially women—find that caregiving or other responsibilities preclude full-time work.
Who are part-time workers?
MOST PART-TIME WORKERS ARE WOMEN.
- Over 32.1 million people work part time—approximately 22% of workers.
- Nearly six in ten part-time workers (59.1%) are women. There were more than 1 million fewer women working part time in 2021 than in 2019, before the pandemic began.
- Women are about 1.6 times more likely to work part time than men: 27.9% of all working women work part time, compared to 17.2% of all working men.
PART-TIME WORKERS ARE ESPECIALLY LIKELY TO WORK IN LOW-PAID JOBS AND STRUGGLE TO MAKE ENDS MEET.
Part-time workers (32.3%) are about three times more likely than full-time workers (10.5%) to hold low-paid jobs (defined as the 40 lowest-paying occupations in the U.S.). More than two in three part-time workers in low-paid jobs (67.7%) are women.
- One in ten part-time workers (10.0%) lives in poverty—four times the rate of poverty experienced by full-time workers (2.5%). And the federal poverty line—which is just $21,831 for a parent with two children—barely begins to capture what families need to make ends meet.
- More than one in four part-time workers (26.6%) live near poverty, with household incomes below 200% of the poverty line, compared to 11.5% of full-time workers. Similarly, among women working part time, 26.8% have household incomes below 200% of the poverty line, including 10.3% who live in poverty.
- Black women and Latinas working in part-time jobs are especially likely to live paycheck to paycheck. Over two in five Black women (45.2%) and Latinas (41.6%) working part time have incomes below 200% of the poverty line. More than one in six Black women (18.1%) and nearly one in six Latinas (16.1%) working part time are living in poverty.
MOST PART-TIME WORKERS ARE AGE 25 AND OLDER.
Three in four part-time workers (75.1%) are age 25 and older; only 11.0% are teens age 16 to 19.
- Nearly half of part-time workers (48.6%) are age 25 to 54—that is, prime working age. More than six in ten prime-age part-time workers (61.8%) are women.
- More than one in four part-time workers (26.4%) are age 55 and older. Nearly six in ten older part-time workers (57.5%) are women.
MANY PART-TIME WORKERS ARE SUPPORTING FAMILIES.
- Close to one in four part-time workers (23.9%) have children under 18. The vast majority (80.4%) of these parents working part time are women.
- Three in ten mothers working part time (30.5%) are supporting children on their own.
PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES ARE MORE LIKELY TO WORK PART TIME THAN PEOPLE WITHOUT DISABILITIES.
- More than one in four workers with a disability (26.6%) work part time, compared to 15.8% of workers without a disability.
- More than one in three working women with a disability (31.8%) work part time, compared to 21.3% of working women without a disability.
Why Do People Work Part Time?
MILLIONS OF PART-TIME EMPLOYEES WORK PART TIME BECAUSE FULL-TIME WORK IS NOT AVAILABLE.
- More than one in seven part-time workers—4.9 million people—work part time “involuntarily” as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which considers part-time work to be involuntary when it is for “economic reasons,” including because of slack work, unfavorable business conditions, the inability to find full-time work, or seasonal declines in demand. Nearly half of employees who work part time involuntarily (48.2%) are women.
- Between February and April 2020, the number of part-time workers citing economic reasons more than doubled, from nearly 4.4 million to nearly 10.9 million. By December 2021, this number was just below 4.0 million.
- These estimates of the prevalence of involuntary part-time work do not include people who want to work part time but receive fewer hours than they are seeking from their employer—a scenario that is common in many low-paid service sector jobs. Research from the Center for Law and Social Policy shows that up to 40% of all people working part time would prefer more hours, including half of people working part time in service occupations.
EIGHT IN TEN WORKERS WHO WORK PART TIME DO SO FOR OTHER REASONS, INCLUDING SCHOOL OR FAMILY OBLIGATIONS.
- More than eight in ten people who work part time (85.0%) do so for reasons other than the unavailability of full-time work—reasons that the Bureau of Labor Statistics terms “noneconomic reasons.” Women are six in ten of these workers (60.7%).
- People who work part time for noneconomic reasons may not seek full-time work for a variety of reasons—many of which are not truly “voluntary,” including caregiving responsibilities that likely have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with ongoing school and child care closures and quarantines.
- Between February and April 2020, the economy lost over 22 million jobs. These losses mean that 42.8% fewer women were working part time for noneconomic reasons like child care problems, family or personal obligations, and health or medical limitations between February and April 2020. It’s unlikely this number dropped because women found full-time work: during the same time period, women lost over 12.2 million jobs overall. As of December 2021, both the number of women working part time for noneconomic reasons and the number of women working full time were still lower than before the pandemic, as women’s labor force participation remained at its lowest level since 1991.
- Nearly 5.3 million workers who are part time for noneconomic reasons (19.4%) report working part time because of child care problems or other family or personal obligations. Women are over four times more likely than men to cite “other family/personal obligations” as reasons for working part time during a given week. While some of these workers prefer to work part time, for others the “choice” of part-time work may be forced by, for example, high child care costs, child care closures, or inflexible and unpredictable work schedules, especially during the pandemic.
- Just over 5.5 million workers who are part time for noneconomic reasons (20.2%) report working part time because they are in school or training.
- Over 2.3 million workers who are part time for noneconomic reasons (8.5%) report working part time because they are retired or are subject to Social Security income limits and would lose benefits if they worked more.
- More than 900,000 workers who are part time for noneconomic reasons (3.3%) report working part time due to health or medical limitations.
- Over 360,000 workers who are part time for noneconomic reasons (1.3%) report working part time due to weather-related curtailment—a number likely to grow with increasing weather disruptions from climate change.
What Are Key Concerns for Part-Time Workers?
PAY AND ACCESS TO BENEFITS ARE A MAJOR CONCERN FOR THOSE WHO WORK PART TIME.
- Part-time workers are paid less than full-time workers in the same industry and occupation. For example, part-time retail salespersons make more than six dollars less per hour, on average, than their full-time counterparts ($12.26 per hour for part-time workers, compared to $18.61 per hour for full-time workers). Similarly, part-time office and administrative support workers make more than $5.50 less per hour than their full-time counterparts ($14.08 per hour for part-time workers, compared to $19.77 per hour for full-time workers). Overall, the Economic Policy Institute estimates part-time workers are paid nearly 20% less per hour than their full-time counterparts in the same industry and occupation, and this part-time wage penalty is greatest (at 29%) for workers who work part time because they cannot secure the full-time work they are seeking.
- Part-time workers often are not eligible for employer-provided benefits. Employers provide just 23% of part-time workers with access to medical insurance benefits, compared to 88% of full-time workers. Full-time workers are nearly twice as likely to have access to retirement benefits as part-time workers (81% of full-time workers, compared to 42% of part-time workers). Full-time workers are also nearly twice as likely to have access to paid sick days as part-time workers (89% of full-time workers compared to 48% of part-time workers). And while most workers lack paid family leave, full-time workers are about 2.5 times more likely to have this benefit than part-time workers: 27% of full-time workers can access paid family leave, compared to just 11% of part-time workers. The disparity also applies to paid medical leave: 89% of full-time workers have paid medical leave for their own health needs compared with 48% of part-time workers. Part-time workers are often ineligible even for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act due to their varying schedules and hours.
- Women who work full time are more likely than those who work part time to be promoted. A 2014 study found women working full time are more likely to be promoted than part-time workers, though the trend does not hold for men. And in a 2018 analysis, the Federal Reserve found that more than half (56%) of full-time workers had received a raise in the prior year, while only 29% of part-time workers who cited economic reasons and 37% of part-time workers who cited other reasons could say the same.
- Part-time workers face varying schedules and hours. The Federal Reserve’s analysis also found only 12% of full-time workers faced varying schedules based on their employer’s needs, compared to 36% of part-time workers who cite economic reasons and 26% of part-time workers who cite other reasons for working part time. And 2017-2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that half of part-time workers receive no more than two weeks’ notice of their work schedules, while less than one-third of full-time workers receive so little notice. This kind of precarious scheduling is associated with material hardship, including difficulties securing adequate food and housing, and makes it even more challenging for working parents to arrange child care.
- Part-time workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance in many states. Part-time workers who lose their jobs may be unable to access unemployment insurance (UI) due to state policies that, for example, require workers to earn a certain level of wages over a short period or to seek full-time employment to qualify for UI benefits. While coronavirus relief legislation created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that broadly expanded eligibility to part-time workers, this program expired on September 6, 2021.