How Many Hours Is "Part Time"? It's Complicated.

How Many Hours Is "Part Time"? It's Complicated. feature image

The definition of part-time, for a long time, has been jobs that take "substantially less" than the M-F, 9-5 requirement. Part-time jobs can range from a few hours helping out at a family business, all the way up to covering a couple of shifts a week, but there is a nebulous middle ground between part-time and full-time that needs to be considered as an employer. So, how many hours is part time? How many hours is full time?

One of the major benefits of part-time work was a metric not related to actual hours: part-time workers had enough time that they could have another part-time job if they wanted. They could also devote that other "part" to tasks like volunteering, caregiving duties, and serving in the local government. Part-time jobs that still prevent workers from using the other 'part' of their time, one would assume, aren't really part-time.

When you want an employee for more than 20 hours a week but less than 30 hours a week, your employee is considered, in the eyes of the United States law, a part-time employee. That being said, some potentially exploitative circumstances can arise when 20-29 hours of work per week is considered part-time.

How "Basically Full Time" Became "Part Time" in the United States

Many factors influence the culture of overwork in the U.S., but some factors have more influence than others. The United States government made the choice to tie offerings of health insurance to full-time employment under the Affordable Care Act for companies with 50 or more full-time employees. For many years before that, it was already expected that qualifying for benefits happened at a full-time level, so such a ruling was in many ways a long time coming and actually was intended to protect workers.

Because of this legislation, medium and large companies pay very careful attention to the bottom-level cut-off for full-time employment: part-time employees are seriously reprimanded if they work more than 29 hours a week or 130 hours a month, because it could result in a fine for not providing health insurance to these accidentally-full-time employees.

In practice, some companies attempt to get around the law by hiring just as many full-time equivalents (FTEs) as other large companies, but refusing to let most of them work more than 29 hours a week. Many of these same companies also have frustrating labour practices, such as at-will shifts that can be called off all of a sudden, and very low pay.

The changing of schedules each week, in particular, makes calling this 29-hours-a-week job 'part-time' seem incorrect; if the person must wait until one or two weeks beforehand to know when they'll be expected at work for 29 hours, there is very little remaining time for them to participate in the other 'part' of their lives, as mentioned above.

There are certainly companies that make 20-29 hours a week a truly free experience by offering competitive pay, flexible work hours, and even benefits, but the creation of a legal definition of full-time as 30 or more hours does offer a loophole to those who are willing to take it.

In the reality of exploitative labour, 28 or 29 hours a week isn't part-time at all; it's merely "not technically full time," a way to deprive people who essentially work full time of the benefits of that commitment.

Protection for Workers: Canada's Example

Putting a minimum on full-time work results, as we saw earlier, in the possibility for exploitation. Canada's example offers another possibility. Canada's legislation focuses on limiting overwork by placing an upper limit on 'standard' full-time workers of 40 hours per week or 8 hours a day, and a general upper limit of 48 hours a week, with 8 of those hours being considered overtime and qualified for higher pay. Exceptions exist, but the protections offered by this rule are substantial.

Protections and limitations on overwork are key; many workers are frustrated by the common trends in their offices where too many hours are expected for the same rate of pay, above and beyond normal full-time hours. Normalizing overwork isn't actually good for employers, who experience higher turnover and burnout rates as a result, but the ever-upward creep of the definitions of part-time and full-time add pressure.

The European Union has made an even more broad claim, which helps employers focus on what they need rather than on cost savings: part-time workers are entitled to the same "pay, leave, notice periods, and other rights and benefits" that full-time workers are. The loophole, for them, is closed, which may not be the right way for the United States to handle it, but is certainly a case study to examine.

Part-Time Should Actually Offer Freedom

Part-time work is the kind of work that leaves you time for other pursuits. It could be 10, 15, or even 20 hours a week, but it shouldn't be 29 hours with a schedule that changes every week. Calling this 'part-time' at the same time that working a single 10-hour shift and having six free days to do with what you will are simply lumping too many circumstances together into one umbrella term.

Freedom of some kind should come alongside the challenges of part-time work (chief among them is not bringing in a full-time level of pay, but there are others).

By this definition, we believe that 30 hours a week, and under certain conditions, 25-29 hours a week, constitutes a full-time job. The commitment needed to get the requisite rest, handle one's home duties, and still be at work, ready to be productive for 25-30 hours a week is a full-time commitment.

The grey area between part-time and full-time should be put to the test by asking whether someone could reasonably get a second part-time job and thrive in both of them. If that isn't possible, it is likely that the first job was really much closer to 'full-time' in its impact on the worker's life.

Socially Responsible Labels: Keep Part-Time Truly Part-Time

With the many technological resources and organizational tools available, United States workers are more effective than they've ever been; 30 hours of work in 2020 can accomplish what would have taken dozens, sometimes hundreds, of hours in the past.

29.99 hours does not make a part-time job, especially without protections like benefits or consistent schedules. As you interrogate whether to call a job part-time or full-time, consider not only the hours the person must commit to the work itself, but also the level of commitment by the employee to make this part-time job work: can they maintain their work-life balance at a part-time level, or are they really giving way more to work?

Nicholas Rempel