Part-time workers ‘clinging on’ to jobs as labour market recovers, analysis reveals

9 Jun 2021 By Elizabeth Howlett

Report shows people working fewer hours have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and face being ‘locked out’ of roles

Part-time employees, especially women and those with caring responsibilities, have been disproportionately affected by the impact of the pandemic and could be left “clinging on” to their jobs while the rest of the labour market begins to recover, a report has warned.

Analysis of Office for National Statistics data, conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies and Timewise, has shown for the first time that part-time workers are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with rates of part-time employment falling to the lowest levels since 2010.

Part-time workers now account for just a quarter (24 per cent) of all those in work, while the share of women in part-time work has fallen to its lowest since records began, down to 37 per cent from 41 per cent in 2020.

The report, Fair Flexible Futures, also highlighted a disparity between part-time and full-time workers during the pandemic.

Half of the UK’s part-time workforce (approximately 3.9 million people) has been furloughed or put on reduced hours since the first lockdown in April-June 2020, compared to just a third (approximately 8.16 million) of full-time workers.

Now, as the economy starts to recover, full-time workers are returning to normal hours in greater proportions to part-time staff.

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Nearly half (44 per cent) of part-time employees who were away from work during the first lockdown continued to be away between July and September 2020, compared to just 34 per cent of full-time workers.

The report also cautioned that just 8 per cent of all UK job vacancies offered part-time hours, potentially meaning millions could be “locked out” of the recovering labour market, and that those with caring responsibilities  – predominantly women – will be forced into “difficult choices” between unemployment and unsustainable working hours.

Emma Stewart, director of development at Timewise, said as the furlough scheme draws to a close in September, many part-time employees felt they were “clinging on to jobs” that will soon disappear without hope of securing a new one.

“They will effectively be locked out of work,” she said. “We need a jobs recovery that is inclusive of people who need to work less, not just remotely. This is vital to prevent inequalities from widening further and the clock rolling back on gender equality.”

Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, said while the findings were disappointing, they were not surprising. Even before the pandemic, part-time work often came with a pay penalty and was sometimes referred to as “career death”, she said.

“Part-time workers can also suffer from broader flexible working stigma because they are seen as not as motivated, committed or career focused than their full-time [or] non-flexible colleagues.” 

Dale added that these findings showed the “uneven impact” the pandemic was having on female workers and those with additional caring responsibilities, who were more likely to be working part time.

However, HR consultant Gemma Bullivant said she empathised with organisations trying to “juggle” the cost of talent in the challenging economic climate.

“When times are economically tough, it's a natural behaviour to revert to the path of least resistance – in this case, workers who can apparently work across more hours and are therefore more versatile in the workforce,” she said.

But, Bullivant added, employers could play a more proactive role in helping even the playing field between men and women when it comes to part-time disparity.

“Organisations can encourage more universal access to all flexible programmes, ensuring there are senior male role models working part-time roles, and normalising the balance of part-time or flexible working patterns across both genders,” she said.

In its report, Timewise made several recommendations to government to help keep part-time workers in the labour market, including the right to ask for flexible working from day one, similar to the CIPD’s #FlexFromFirst campaign, alongside ensuring that new funded employer creation schemes, such as the green jobs deal, include requirements for new jobs to be flexible.

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