Underemployed Workers: Left Behind In The Recovery?

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Like many part-time employees, Bintou Kamara would like to work more hours. Employed as a cashier at a flagship Ambercrombie & Fitch store in midtown Manhattan, Kamara, 22, says that she works as few as five hours a week and is paid $9 an hour.

Kamara's predicament is made all the more difficult by a requirement, now common among retailers, that she be "on-call" three to four times a week, should the store need additional help. "We aren't getting enough hours," said Kamara, who started a petition asking the company to end the practice. "[We get] more call-in shifts than regular hours."

The policy requires employees to call in two hours prior to a scheduled shift, which Kamara says impedes workers' ability to take a second job, or plan for daycare or school. "I end up having just on-call shifts and sometimes when I call, they're telling me not to come to work."

The result is that some weeks Kamara (pictured above) ends up working no hours at all. The Bronx resident, a full-time college student, says that she also works as a home health aide, though this week, damage to New York's transportation system caused by Hurricane Sandy has prevented her from traveling to lower Manhattan to care for her patients.

Abercrombie, based in New Albany, Ohio, declined to comment about its policy or Kamara's petition at Change.org.

Kamara's inability to work as much as she'd like isn't a phenomenon unique to retail workers -- though the problem is particularly acute in that sector. Across the nation, some 8.6 million Americans are underemployed, defined as those who are working part-time but would prefer to work full-time.

Within retail and hospitality the number of underemployed works has climbed to 3.1 million, or two-and-half times 2006 levels, The New York Times reports, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In retail alone, nearly 30 percent of part-timers want full-time jobs, up from 10.6 percent in 2006. In the retail and wholesale sectors, which includes hundreds of thousands of small stores that rely heavily on full-time workers, about 30 percent of employees work part-time.

More:Are These The Worst Jobs In America?

UPDATE: The federal government released fresh data on the nation's employment picture Friday morning. The report showed the U.S. unemployment rate rose slightly to 7.9 percent in October, as the economy added 171,000 jobs. The number of underemployed workers fell to 8.3 million last month from 8.6 million in September.

As the Times notes, there are no detailed data on part-time workers at the nation's major retailers, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut a million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs.

"Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts," David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aeropostale and Pier One Imports, told the Times.

The inability to earn enough money leaves many part-time workers relying on programs for the needy, including food stamps and Medicaid.

One reason underemployment has increased relates to the nation's troubled housing market. Either unable or unwilling to sell their houses, homeowners who might otherwise move out of town to take a job elsewhere are instead staying put and taking any work that they can find, says Benjamin Passty, research assistant professor at Cincinnati University.

Other workers, Passty tells The Cincinnati Enquirer, can't find work because the sector in which they labored shed jobs during the recession.

"Some industries, such as residential construction, had an over-surplus prior to the recession," Passty said. "Many of these jobs and industries are going [through long-term restructuring]."

That's cold comfort to workers such as Kamara, who face the prospect of a grim holiday season this year without more hours and increased pay. "I can't really do anything when it comes to Christmas," she says. "I'm just going to have to pay my bills and pay my rent."

Underemployed? These tips can help revive your job search and land that full-time job:

  • Don't give up. The only way to land a new job is to keep looking.
  • Use your time effectively. If you're working only part-time, use the other hours you have available to refine and bolster your search for work.
  • Get connected. You don't have to be a glad-hander to get the word out that you're looking for work. Though personal interactions are usually best, social networking sites (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) can help you speed the message that you're looking for work. They can also help you research employers, showcase your talents and apply for jobs.

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