The Involuntary Part-time Work and Underemployment Problem in the U.S.

By Lonnie Golden and Jaeseung Kim

Underemployment is prevalent in the labor market, distributed unevenly, and is harmful to worker well-being. The standard U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) measure of underemployment captures those who work part-time hours but who want and are available to work full time. Using a 2016 national survey, the authors create a broader measure of part-time worker underemployment, that includes any part-time worker who prefers more work hours. This more inclusive measure reveals a rate of “part-time underemployment” that’s from 8 to 11 percent of total employment in the United States–double the rate captured by the narrower BLS measure.

Among workers of color who have been historically marginalized, this rate is about twice as high as that of white workers. Underemployment is also relatively higher for workers with fluctuating work schedules and who are employed in leisure/hospitality, educational/health, and transportation services industries, along with those in lower-wage jobs such as service, transportation/materials moving, and sales. Among part-time workers, as many as four in ten prefer to work more hours. The report reveals that being part time and underemployed is associated with workers having reduced satisfaction with their jobs, financial situation, and work-family balance. Because such involuntary part-time work is climbing steeply in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic recession, this report portends the coming harms and suggests the appropriate policy reforms that would reduce the incidence and impact of underemployment.

Download the report here.