2018-10-09
Story

Despite wages and hours so low that she couldn’t afford a place to live for a while, Corletta Hithon-Davis says being a home-health worker is a “privilege.”

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Karen Auge

When Corletta Hithon-Davis talks about helping seniors do their dishes, make their beds or take the right medications at the right time, she sounds more like someone describing a calling than a job.

“I get to talk to and be in care for seniors,” said Hithon-Davis, who works for a home-health agency. “It’s about preserving their lives. It’s a privilege. Seniors are a wonderful resource, but they are our biggest throwaway.”

In the three years she’s been a home-health worker with her current employer, Hithon-Davis’s wage has moved up to $11.93 an hour, thanks to a recent 10-cents-per-hour raise. That means that, despite her years with the company, she’s barely staying ahead of state-mandated hikes that set the current minimum wage at $10.20 an hour. When she started there three years ago, she made $10.75 an hour.

Hithon-Davis hasn’t worked her way up to a full-time job. Or even enough hours to take home a living wage.

Right now, she sees two seniors each week, for a total of about 18 hours—or $193.50 a week before taxes. And so, Hithon-Davis, whose job is all about caring for people and helping them stay in their homes, had no home of her own for a while.

“I’m couch-surfing,” Hithon-Davis said earlier this year. “My stuff is in storage.” By fall, she had finally found an apartment of her own she could afford.

With the economy soaring, jobless numbers in the United States have plummeted. In Colorado, unemployment was a paltry 2.8 percent in July 2018, and hasn’t been higher than 3.0 percent since the fall of 2016. That good news has prompted a collective national sigh of relief and a general feeling that our unemployment troubles may be over.

But the hidden—or ignored—underside of that good news is the stubbornly high levels of something economists and social activists call “involuntary part-time employment.”

With typical hourly wages too low to lift an individual like Hithon-Davis—let alone a family—out of poverty, and a lack of health insurance or paid sick time, involuntary part-time employment is, for many of the nation’s estimated 6.4 million workers caught in it, its own kind of poverty trap, according to a 2016 study by the nonpartisan think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI). In Colorado and across the country, involuntary part-time employment may be the new unemployment.

When economists and social justice activists talk about involuntary part-time workers, they don’t mean high-school students ringing up spending money for prom night or stashing away cash for college. They are talking about people like displaced professionals, parents working seasonal construction jobs, military veterans—many of whom have college or even graduate degrees.

Many involuntary part-time workers are single mothers like Candace Bateman.

Bateman is a home-health worker at the same company as Hithon-Davis and, like her colleague, she loves her job. “You build a bond with the people you care for that goes beyond work,” said Bateman.

Bateman just wants more of the work she loves. She said her company continues to add workers, and those new employees often get more hours. She suspects that’s because, as a three-year veteran of the company, she makes $11 an hour—much more, she says, than most newcomers take home.

When contacted about their starting wages for new employees, several agencies that provide in-home care and assistance for seniors declined to disclose information for this article. InnovAge, one of the nation’s largest agencies, said only that it offers “competitive” wages and benefits. (The Colorado Trust funded two nonprofit organizations in 2015 and 2016 to represent public interest in the conversion of InnovAge’s Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly program to a for-profit entity.)

Aside from trying to get by on low wages, part-time workers may face more health problems than workers with consistent work hours. A 2016 study, published in the British Medical Journal, analyzed data from more than 60 other studies and concluded that rotating shifts make workers more vulnerable to a host of conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, decreased fertility and a 42 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The number of involuntary part-time workers surged during the recession a decade ago, and peaked at nearly one-quarter of all workers in 2010. But, even as the economy recovered and overall unemployment plunged to 4.1 percent, the number of Colorado workers stuck in part-time limbo barely crept downward, to just shy of 17 percent of all workers in 2016, according to the Colorado Center on Law & Policy (CCLP). (The organization is a Colorado Trust grantee.)

Women are slightly more likely to be trapped in involuntary part-time work—5.1 percent of all female workers compared 4 percent of all male workers. But racial and ethnic disparities are stark: an estimated 6.8 percent of Hispanics and 6.3 percent of African-Americans work part-time but would prefer a full-time position, compared with 3.7 percent for whites, reported EPI.

Michael Baca hardly fits the description of someone struggling to find full-time work. But the former Marine Corps weather forecaster, who has a master’s degree in education, spent the past few years whipping up Jamba Juice concoctions, ringing up office supplies at Staples stores and prettying up poodles at a dog-grooming boutique—all part-time, all for low hourly wages.

“I’d work 37 or 38 hours, but they would always make sure I never got 40. And I never got benefits,” said Baca.

No matter how many hours Baca worked, in Denver and Las Vegas, it wasn’t enough for him to both pay his monthly medical bills—none of his part-time employers provided health care insurance—and have a steady place to live.

For the past few months, Baca has been a full-time staff member at the nonprofit advocacy group Colorado Working Families. Working 60 hours or so each week has given him hope, Baca said, that he might soon afford a place of his own to live.

For Bateman, her part-time job at a second home health agency gives her the flexibility she needs as the single mother of a 10-year-old girl. “I can go to see my clients, and I can take my daughter where she needs to be.”

Bateman, though, has one thing going for her that many part-time workers don’t have: some consistency in her schedule. Like Hithon-Davis, she has regular clients, people she’s gotten to know, and care about, and expects to see week after week at pretty much the same time. That means she can schedule activities, appointments and more for her daughter and be reasonably certain she’ll be able to get her there.

That’s something many part-time workers might envy. EPI found that an estimated 60 percent of part-time retail workers have less than two weeks’ notice about when they’ll be working.

That same 2016 study found that as much as most part-time employees want to work additional hours, they covet predictable schedules even more. Maybe that’s because, as the study reported, workers who get more than two weeks’ notice of their schedule are more likely to be happy, less stressed and sleep better.

In other words, work-schedule stability and consistency are likely to promote better health. In fact, only 33 percent of part-time workers with unpredictable schedules rated their health as very good or excellent when asked by researchers.

Considering that unpredictable work schedules produce unpredictable lives, particularly for those with young children, that’s not surprising. Spots in daycare and after-school programs fill up weeks or months in advance; those who run them expect payment in advance, too. So not knowing from one week to the next how much or when they’ll be working often forces parents working part-time into last-minute—and potentially last-resort—child care.

So, while Bateman’s daughter benefits from her mom’s schedule, she may be an exception. Another EPI study, from 2015, found that children whose parents don’t work regular schedules—in other words, children whose parents may or may not be able to show up for school plays or sporting events or family dinner —tend to have more behavior problems.

Multiple factors contribute to the glut of part-time workers. The Affordable Care Act gets a share of the blame from conservatives, including President Donald Trump, who claim employers are cutting workers’ hours to spare themselves the cost of providing health insurance to full-time workers, as the law requires. (This ACA criticism has largely been debunked.)

Technology is partly to blame. “Developments in technology have made it easier for employers to schedule to demand,” said Julie Vogtman, director of job quality and senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center. The latest scheduling software means that restaurant managers, for example, can add last-minute servers when a local team makes the playoffs, or cut hours with little notice when a snowstorm promises to keep diners at home.

Finally, economists and employers cite a mismatch between the skills employers need and the skills part-time workers have.

While Colorado’s unemployment rate is consistently lower than the national average, the state ranks 27th in the country for moving part-time workers into full-time jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017. That same report found that Colorado had 102,000 part-time workers looking for full-time jobs—more than the number of unemployed residents looking for any work at all. That distinction was shared by only one other state: tourism- and hospitality-rich Hawaii.

In the past year, for example, high-tech workers have found Denver a veritable employment buffet: a multitude of appetizing jobs laid out before them, often paired with high salaries, signing bonuses and generous benefits. In all, nearly 6,000 workers got full-time information technology jobs in metro Denver in 2016, The Denver Post reported last year, and hiring in that field shows no sign of slowing.

But Bateman isn’t interested in working in tech. Now in her 50s, she is “too old to go back to school,” she said. She just wants more of the work she loves.

If Bateman did want to learn a new skill, or earn a degree, she—like most involuntary part-time workers—would have a hard time doing it: When you don’t know when you’ll be working, it’s hard to show up for classes or training, or be certain you can pay tuition.

For those like Vogtman who study the issue and advocate for change, there is a simple explanation for the rate of involuntary part-time workers remaining stubbornly high: profit.

“There is a trend in retail, food service and other sectors, for employers to maximize profits on the backs of people who work for them,” she said.

Thomas Jordan, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation (NRF), declined to be interviewed. He did, however, point to a 2013 NRF blog post that cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that seven in 10 retail employees are full-time—and of those working part-time, two-thirds do so by choice.

“Not everyone needs, or even wants, a full-time gig,” author Allison Zeller wrote in that blog post. “People might choose to work part-time for many reasons… extra cash during the holidays, others might want to supplement a salary they’re earning in another industry, and many might need to work around a busy family schedule.”

All true. But, Vogtman argues, having to “work around a busy family schedule” isn’t always a choice. Family caregivers—disproportionately women—whose responsibilities for a sick child, ailing spouse or aging parent find working full-time all but impossible, she said.

The struggles of people involuntarily working part-time are on the radar of activists and lawmakers. The federal Schedules That Work Act, which has been introduced in both houses of Congress, is unlikely to pass before midterm elections. But Vogtman said activists intend to keep it on lawmakers’ radar. Its key provisions, which would apply to companies with 15 or more employees, would guarantee workers the right to request more predictable schedules without fear of retaliation, and force employers to grant scheduling requests made because the worker has health, child-, or elder-care concerns, has a second job, or is pursuing additional training or education.

In the meantime, several states, including California, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, have passed measures instituting some kind of fair-scheduling requirement. In 2017, Oregon passed perhaps the most comprehensive fair-scheduling standards, requiring retail, hospitality and food service businesses to provide new workers good-faith estimates of how many hours they can expect to work, as well as two weeks’ notice of their schedules.

Nothing like that is on the horizon in Colorado yet, said Jesus Loayza, a policy analyst at CCLP.

So, for the moment, Hithon-Davis focuses her anger and energy on organizing other home-health workers to demand better pay, and professional status that would come with formal training. “I talk to co-workers, and ask them ‘why aren’t we making livable wages?’” She believes those in her profession should have training, and would benefit financially from such a requirement.

“If you have to be licensed to do nails, why don’t I have to be?” Hithon-Davis said.

Before she could enter the homes of elderly and often frail clients, Hithon-Davis had to pass a criminal background check—but not any coursework that would demonstrate she was qualified to care for frail, sick or elderly people. She says she learned about caring for people by guiding her own mother through illness.

Hithon-Davis knows she could almost equal her current hourly rate, and potentially qualify for health insurance, working at Starbucks or one of the other retail or food-service companies currently competing for part-time workers. But that would mean giving up work she believes makes a difference.

“I’m gonna stick it out,” she said. “I love my clients. I just want their care to be done right.”

Karen Auge
Journalist
Denver, Colorado