SPRING VALLEY Since the Fresh & Easy grocery chain was founded five years ago, it has opened 150 markets in California and positioned itself as a hip, socially responsible company.
A cross between Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, the company brags that its house brands have no artificial colors or trans fats, that two-thirds of its produce is grown locally and that its main distribution center is powered by a $13 million solar installation.
But in one crucial respect, Fresh & Easy is just like the vast majority of large American retailers: Most employees work part time, with its stores changing many of their workers' schedules week to week.
At its store just east of San Diego, Shannon Hardin oversees seven self-checkout stations, usually by herself. Typically working shifts of five or six hours, she hops between stations bagging groceries, approving alcohol purchases, explaining the checkout system to shoppers and urging customers to join the retailer's loyalty program, all while watching for shoplifters.
"I like it. I'm a people person," said Hardin, 50, who used to work as an office assistant at a construction company until times went bad.
But after nearly five years at Fresh & Easy, she remains a part-time worker despite her desire to work full time. In fact, all 22 employees at her store are part time, except for the five managers.
She earns $10.90 an hour, and with workweeks averaging 28 hours, her yearly pay equals $16,500. "I can't live on this," said Hardin, who is single. "It's almost impossible."
While there have always been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more than before as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full time, reducing their pay and benefits.
"Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full time to at least 70 percent part time across the industry," said Burt Flickinger, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.
No one has collected detailed data on part-time workers at the nation's major retailers. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut 1 million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs.
Technology is speeding this transformation. In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But workers' schedules have become far less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand.
"Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts," said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aeropostale and Pier 1 Imports.
Some employers even ask workers to come in at the last minute, and the workers risk losing their jobs or receiving fewer hours in the future if they are unavailable.
The widening use of part-timers has been a bane to many workers, pushing many into poverty and forcing some onto food stamps and Medicaid. And with work schedules that change week to week, workers can find it hard to arrange child care, attend college or hold a second job, according to interviews with more than 40 part-time workers.
To be sure, many people prefer to work part time for instance, college students eager for extra spending money and older people who work during the holiday season to earn money for gifts. But in two leading industries retailing and hospitality the number of part-timers who would prefer to work full time has jumped to 3.1 million, or 2 1/2 times the 2006 level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In retailing alone, nearly 30 percent of part-timers want full-time jobs, up from 10.6 percent in 2006. The agency found that in the retail and wholesale sector, which includes hundreds of thousands of small stores that rely heavily on full-time workers, about three in 10 employees work part time.
Retailers and restaurants rely heavily on part-timers not only because it gives them more flexibility, but because it significantly cuts payroll costs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part-time workers in service jobs received average compensation of $10.92 an hour in June, made up of $8.90 in wages plus benefits of $2.02. Full-time workers in that sector averaged 57 percent more in total compensation $17.18 an hour, made up of $12.25 in wages and $4.93 in benefits. Benefit costs are far lower for part-timers because, for example, just 21 percent of them are in employer-backed retirement plans, compared with 65 percent of full-timers.
At the Fresh & Easy store, Hardin is forever urging her boss to give her more hours, she said, but instead, "they turn around and hire more people." Some weeks, her boss gives her an extra shift when a co-worker is sick or on vacation.
Officials of Fresh & Easy, which is owned by Tesco, the largest supermarket company in Britain, declined to be interviewed. But the company noted that its entry-level pay was $10 an hour, substantially higher than at most retailers, with quarterly bonuses on top of that. Also, the company said it offered excellent benefits, including health insurance to anyone averaging more than 20 hours a week.
Hardin said her recent quarterly bonuses averaged less than $200, and while she appreciated the health insurance, she often could not afford the co-pays to see a doctor.
At the Jamba Juice shop at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, along with the juice oranges and whirring blenders is another tool vital to the business: the Weather Channel.
The shop's managers frequently look at the channel's website and plug the temperature and rain forecast into the software they use to schedule employees.
"Weather has a big effect on our business," said Nicole Rosser, Jamba's New York district manager.
If the mercury is going to hit 95 the next day, for instance, the software will suggest scheduling more employees based on the historic increase in store traffic in hot weather. At the 53rd Street store, Rosser said, that can mean seven employees on the busy 11-to-2 shift, rather than the typical four or five.
Such powerful scheduling software, developed by companies like Dayforce and Kronos over the last decade, has been widely adopted by retail and restaurant chains. The Kronos program that Jamba bought in 2009 breaks down schedules into 15-minute increments. So if the lunchtime rush at a particular shop slows down at 1:45, the software may suggest cutting 15 minutes from the shift of an employee normally scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Karen Luey, Jamba's chief financial officer, said the scheduling software "helped us take 400, 500 basis points out of our labor costs," or four to five percentage points, a savings of millions of dollars a year.
The rise of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, with their long operating hours and complex staffing needs, has contributed to the increase in part-timers.
Flickinger, the retail consultant, said that when Wal-Mart spread nationwide and opened hundreds of 24-hour stores in the 1990s, that created intense competitive pressures and prompted many retailers to copy the company's cost-cutting practices, including its heavy reliance on part-timers.
Susan Lambert, an expert on part-time work and a professor of organizational theory at the University of Chicago, said the use of part-timers had also escalated because of the declining power of labor unions.
"They set a standard for what a real job was Monday through Friday with full-time hours," she said. "We've moved away from that." Many corporations place store or restaurant managers under strict limits about what their payroll or employee hours can be each week, usually based on a formula tied to sales. These formulas usually give managers little flexibility to increase the hours assigned.
David Henson, a former assistant manager at a Walmart in Thief River Falls, Minn., said part-timers would sometimes come into his office on the brink of tears.
"A lot of them were single mothers. They said they weren't earning enough to support their families," he said. "They desperately wanted more hours, but we weren't able to give them."
Some, Henson said, were eager to take second jobs. But if they said they were unavailable during certain hours, then the managers and scheduling software would reduce their hours further, he said. Many workers concluded that it was simply not worth it.
David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that less than half of Wal-Mart's hourly employees were part time and that the company provided better wages and benefits than many competitors. But he acknowledged that part-time employees with less availability were typically assigned fewer hours.
Katherine Lugar, executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said that the industry's scheduling practices worked well, and that retailers did their best to accommodate employee needs. "Happy employees provide better service," she said.
She noted that millions of Americans preferred part-time work. "Many individuals come to retail because it is flexible, like the working mom who wants to work when kids are in school, or the graduate student," she said.
When the hours fade
The day after Desmond Anthony graduated from Western Carolina University, he moved to Manhattan with the dream of becoming a Broadway actor and singer.
By Week 2, he had applied for 20 retail jobs, including one at the sprawling Express store in Herald Square, an emporium of slim jeans, sequined T-shirts and booming music.
Express offered him a job the next day. Anthony, 6-foot-4 and with a booming voice and big smile, said that after receiving just four hours of training, he began alternating as a greeter, cashier and sales floor assistant.
At first, he usually worked five days a week, often racking up 30 hours. But after several months, he said, he and many co-workers had their weekly hours cut to 12 or 15 and occasionally none at all.
"I'd go to the managers and say, 'What is the issue? Am I not pulling my weight?' " he said. "And they'd say, 'We just don't have enough money.' "
Anthony quit last February, upset that Express had given him an annual raise of just 25 cents an hour. He now works at a Zara apparel store on Fifth Avenue, which, he said, gives him 30 hours a week and does more to accommodate his scheduling needs.
Express says that about 85 percent of its employees are part time.
"It's really more for flexibility than for anything else," said Michael Keane, the company's executive vice president for human resources. "It helps our ability to match associate staffing to traffic levels."
In New York's fiercely competitive retail world, Anthony's experience is not unusual. Workers at Abercrombie & Fitch, Nine West and Bed Bath & Beyond told similar stories.
Flickinger, the retail consultant, said companies benefited from using many part-timers.
"It's almost like sharecropping if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land," he said. "Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours."