Home » Why Workers Can't Get Enough Hours, Even in a Jobs Boom – The Journal. – WSJ Podcasts – The Wall Street Journal

Why Workers Can't Get Enough Hours, Even in a Jobs Boom – The Journal. – WSJ Podcasts – The Wall Street Journal

by Arifa Rana

American workers quit a record 47 million jobs in 2021. Despite conventional wisdom, they’re not always leaving to pursue their dreams. Instead, many employees aren’t getting enough hours. WSJ’s Te-Ping Chen explains why.
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Ryan Knutson: Over the last two years, 19 year old, Colton Lewelling has had a lot of jobs.
Colton Lewelling: The Cajun restaurant, and then a burger restaurant. And then, you know those arcade style places that have food as well, like buffet type food? Like a Dave & Busters or …
Ryan Knutson: Uh-huh (affirmative). Okay.
Colton Lewelling: Yeah.
Ryan Knutson: Or like a Chuck E. Cheese, maybe?
Colton Lewelling: Yeah, something like that. And then another one of those that was pizza. And then a retail clothing job, then a retail sporting job, then a prep cook job at a fancy restaurant. I did a lot of pasta. I did DoorDash. And then my most recent job right now.
Ryan Knutson: Wow.
Colton Lewelling: Yeah.
Ryan Knutson: At each job, Colton ran into a problem. He wasn't getting enough hours. At what point did you start to realize that this was a trend that was happening in a lot of places?
Colton Lewelling: By the fourth job. And that's why I stepped away from the kitchen atmosphere. I was like, maybe it's different in retail. And surprisingly, it was the same exact thing or worse, in retail.
Ryan Knutson: And so Colton kept quitting and looking for other work.
Colton Lewelling: It became a joke within my family. They were always making fun of me. They were like, oh, Colton, can't keep a job. Stuff like that. I'm like, I'm not getting fired. I'm quitting.
Ryan Knutson: And how did they feel about that? Were they like, oh man, my son's a quitter?
Colton Lewelling: I spoke with my mom a lot about it and she understood it. And she knows what I was trying to do and why everything was happening. But all my family members I didn't talk to about it, they were just like, oh, where are you working this month, Colton? And just shit like that. Shut up.
Ryan Knutson: Our colleague Te-Ping Chen says Colton's experience challenges one of the most talked about narratives in the economy right now, the great resignation. The idea that millions of Americans are quitting their jobs for better work.
Te-Ping Chen: One theme that just kept popping up in conversation were workers who said that they had quit, not necessarily in pursuit of a better title or to get a pay raise, as you might expect, but because they couldn't get enough hours at their existing jobs. And I just thought that was so fascinating and counterintuitive in a lot of ways. If only because of, of course, the narrative of the great resignation is people quitting to get better jobs.
Ryan Knutson: So it wasn't like I want to quit because I want to go find my dream job. It's like, I have to quit because I'm not really getting any work here at all.
Te-Ping Chen: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan Knutson: Welcome to The Journal. Our show about money, business, and power. I'm Ryan Knutson. It's Tuesday, April 12th. Coming up on the show, why for many hourly workers, the great resignation is not what it seems. One thing you probably hear a lot these days is that the labor market is red hot. There's a shortage of workers, and it's hard for companies to hire.
Speaker 4: Demand for manufacturing workers is sky high.
Speaker 5: Every major road is dotted with help wanted signs.
Speaker 6: As restaurants try to scale back up, they're finding the workforce might not be there.
Speaker 7: Millions Of Americans are quitting their jobs and looking for something better.
Speaker 8: With wages now starting at 15, 16, and even $17 per hour.
Ryan Knutson: Our colleague Te-Ping says that for many low income workers, this isn't exactly their experience.
Te-Ping Chen: The conventional wisdom is everyone is incredibly hungry for workers, right? Desperately recruiting, et cetera. And I think that's true. But I think at the same time, you have a lot of workers who even if they are getting hired, can't get the number of hours that they need. And so while it might feel like this turbocharged labor market, and you can just walk through the door and command any kind of wage you want, that's not what a lot of workers are finding in reality. And certainly not when it comes to their schedules.
Ryan Knutson: For hourly workers, this situation isn't exactly new. Many industries, especially retail, hospitality, and restaurants have always had high turnover rates. So they overhire. Overhiring has several benefits for businesses. It allows managers to quickly add staff if demand increases, or if someone calls in sick or quits. And by keeping workers only on part-time schedules, companies can save money.
Te-Ping Chen: And it also means that you can keep people on these part-time schedules. You don't have to offer full-time roles along with benefits. That of course, gets more expensive. So it's been really the way that a lot of businesses have operated for quite some time now.
Ryan Knutson: Why can't they just give people more hours who ask for it?
Te-Ping Chen: That's a great question. And in a lot of ways, it comes down to … I mean, could you literally give people more hours? Sure. But it would be really expensive, and often you don't have the need for it. So if you think about, for example, a restaurant. You're going to have a few peak hours every day, lunch rush, dinner rush, when you really need your revenue of staff. But the rest of the time, you really don't. And so to make sure everybody's got a full schedule is just, it just doesn't cost out. As one academic I was talking to was saying, to solve this issue, you really just would need people coming in to eat 24 hours a day, sort of at a random way, as opposed to clustering everybody at certain times. But that's just not how the world works.
Ryan Knutson: While businesses have been overhiring for years, the pandemic has made things a lot worse. After the economy opened back up and demand started to rise again, businesses tried to hire everyone back all at once.
Te-Ping Chen: It's an environment of a lot of uncertainty. And in some cases, you might be hiring completely from scratch again. So you bring on a lot, all at once, trying to hire really anybody who can walk in through the door, as fast as they can. And when you're hiring at that clip, it's really hard to be cognizant in some cases of your actual scheduling needs, right? So it's sort of like hiring in the dark and you just want to get the folks through the door and then suss things out later.
Ryan Knutson: Sort of like, we know that it's a competitive job market. We know that we need a lot of people, we have to staff all the way up. Let's just hire, basically everybody who comes in the door.
Te-Ping Chen: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.
Ryan Knutson: And what's it like for workers when this happens?
Te-Ping Chen: For workers, when this happens … I mean, it's incredibly frustrating. Because you walk into a job, and in some cases, you've been told that you'll be able to work something like 40 hours. And then in practice, it's, hey, you're scheduled for 30 hours. Maybe it drops to 25, and maybe it'll change. But you don't really know. It just means some months you don't make your bills.
Ryan Knutson: So when employees realize that they're not getting enough hours, what are their options?
Te-Ping Chen: Well in this market, you quit. And if you're lucky, you'll find yourself in a better role.
Ryan Knutson: In other words, the super competitive labor market is actually preventing workers from getting the number of hours they were promised.
Te-Ping Chen: You have businesses that are desperate to hire, but at the same time, there are hiring practices that just lead to more churn.
Ryan Knutson: This creates a vicious cycle. According to a recent survey from Harvard University, 24% of hourly workers said they weren't getting enough hours. Those workers often leave their jobs, making employers feel less secure about staffing, so they overhire to compensate. And with those additional workers, there's not enough hours to go around. And the cycle repeats.
Te-Ping Chen: The trouble is in the sort of environment, of course, who's going to want to stick around for another six months, which is a lifetime in some of these industries, when you have to put up with these short changed hours. And at the same time, the restaurant down the street is offering me a $2 raise if I go.
Ryan Knutson: After the break, how Colton, that guy who quit all those jobs, pushed back against the cycle. Colton Lewelling, who we heard from at the beginning of the episode, says it was easy for him to get a job.
Colton Lewelling: I would go onto Google and I would just type up kitchen jobs in Fresno. And they there'd be a bunch of Indeed listings and stuff like that. I'd click on them and I'd send them an application. Sometimes, as short as 30 minutes later, they'd give me a call back and they'd be like, hey, can you come in? We want to do an interview right now.
Ryan Knutson: Wow.
Colton Lewelling: You would walk in, they'd sit you down. You'd talk about hours. My mom always told me to talk about that kind of stuff, like pay rate and hours. And then they would offer me 30 to 40 hours a week, or 40 plus.
Ryan Knutson: That's what they would tell you.
Colton Lewelling: Yeah, that's what they would tell me.
Ryan Knutson: But it's not what would happen. Once he started, Colton found himself with a lot less work than he'd been promised.
Colton Lewelling: You end up with like, eight to 15 hours a week.
Ryan Knutson: And did you ask for more hours?
Colton Lewelling: I came to management and I was like, hey, I remember when I got hired, we talked about 40 plus hour work weeks. What's going on with that? I need more hours, pretty much. And they would tell me, there's nothing we can really do about it. There's too many people
Ryan Knutson: And that didn't work for Colton. He needed the hours and he needed the money. So what did you do next, after that was happening at that first job?
Colton Lewelling: Well, I quit. I got myself into this cycle where I would get a job and I would be promised these hours and it didn't happen. Then I would quit and look somewhere else for those hours. And it just repeated itself for a long time.
Ryan Knutson: So how many jobs have you had in total since the pandemic started?
Colton Lewelling: It's hard to count, to be real with you. Definitely upwards of seven.
Ryan Knutson: Is this how you thought the job market would be?
Colton Lewelling: No, not at all. I had seen a lot on the news and stuff like that about people being like, we need workers. Please, we need workers. Nobody wants to work anymore. It's like, man, I really want to work, but you don't let me.
Te-Ping Chen: Often when we talk about the great resignation, we talk about Americans having quit 47 million jobs last year. It's an enormous number, but we're not talking about 47 million people. We're talking about 47 million jobs. And what's fascinating about workers, like Colton's situation, these are workers who in some cases are having to quit half a dozen jobs.
Ryan Knutson: 47 million people have quit, but it's actually not 47 million people. It's people have quit 47 million jobs.
Te-Ping Chen: Exactly. And you have people like Colton who are accounting for, in his case, seven of these jobs.
Ryan Knutson: It seems like it's maybe not really that big of a problem for businesses. They can continue to hire people. And there's an advantage to them to have a roster of people who maybe if somebody's unsatisfied, but at least they'll be here for a few weeks or whatever. Because there's going to be somebody right behind them that'll take 10 hours.
Te-Ping Chen: I think that's exactly right. There hasn't been a ton of incentive for companies to make change on this front because they have done really well off having this very part-time, expendable workforce. And the pandemic and the great resignation, though it has, of course, put pressure on employers, it wouldn't seem as though it's really moved the needle as much as you might have expected.
Ryan Knutson: Are there any reasons, from an employer's perspective, not to do this? Is there a downside?
Te-Ping Chen: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a lot of reasons why companies are well served to not follow this kind of model. I mean, for one, if you can keep people more stably employed, that's obviously huge savings in terms of time and actual cost. Yeah. That's something that is fantastic for a business, if you're able to make that work.
Ryan Knutson: Some bigger companies say they're trying to break this cycle and give more hours to their existing employees rather than hiring more new ones.
Te-Ping Chen: Walmart was one company last year that they announced that they were trying to make more of their jobs full-time jobs. As well, Target making similar commitments. They said last year, instead of trying to just staff up a lot during the holidays, we are actually going to make sure that we first are giving more hours to our existing employees. But fundamentally it is a tricky thing, because just the actual needs of businesses don't necessarily line up with a 40 hour week model for everyone.
Ryan Knutson: Earlier this year, Colton got fed up with his situation. He said with his mom's help, he started going to school. He wants to be an EMT, but he still has a job on the side.
Colton Lewelling: Right now, I'm working as a pizza delivery boy.
Ryan Knutson: Are you getting enough hours?
Colton Lewelling: Yeah. And they're the only ones who've really honored their promise on hours. I was a little more demanding in my interview. I was like, I will only work 30 hours, maximum, and I won't work less than 20. This is what I need, and if you guys can't do that for me, I need you to tell me now and I won't work for you. That's fine.
Ryan Knutson: How did they respond to that?
Colton Lewelling: I talked with my manager about that, because he's the one who interviewed me when I got hired. He actually, he said he respected it. To him, he said it shows to him that they care, I guess. It's not just the fact that I need money. I want a good workplace.
Ryan Knutson: That's all for today, Tuesday, April 12th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal. If you like the show, follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We're out every weekday afternoon. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.
Kate Linebaugh is the co-host of The Journal. She has worked at The Wall Street Journal for 15 years, most recently as the deputy U.S. news coverage chief. Kate started at the Journal in Hong Kong, stopping in Detroit and coming to New York in 2011. As a reporter, she covered everything from post-9/11 Afghanistan to the 2004 Asian tsunami, from Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall to General Electric. She holds a bachelor degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and went back to campus in 2007 for a Knight-Wallace fellowship.
Ryan Knutson is the co-host of The Journal. Previously, he spent more than four years in the newsroom covering the wireless industry, and was responsible for a string of scoops including Verizon’s $130 billion buyout of Vodafone’s stake in their joint venture, Sprint and T-Mobile’s never ending courtship and a hack of the 911 emergency system that spread virally on Twitter. He was also a regular author of A-heds, including one about millennials discovering TV antennas. Previously, he reported for ProPublica, PBS Frontline and OPB, the NPR affiliate station in Portland, Ore. He grew up in Beaverton, Ore. and graduated from the University of Oregon.

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