What is a Full-Time Job? The Definition Could be Shrinking.

The line between a full-time versus part-time job may be changing, based on new data. Why 35-hour or even 30-hour work weeks are on the rise.

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Dave Yonkman needed a top lieutenant at DYS Media. But Yonkman, the president of the small media relations firm in Holland, Mich., tempered his expectations.

But then he found the perfect candidate. And Yonkman realized she would take the job if he budged on one thing: the hours.

“I didn’t have any bargaining chip in terms of benefits or pay, but I had flexibility up my sleeve.”

Turns out the candidate was the mother of twins who didn’t want to spend two hours commuting every day. She wanted the full-time job, but wanted to condense the hours. So Yonkman offered her everything that comes with full-time status but at 30 hours a week.

“I’m doing everything I would for a full-time employee, and for that matter I consider her full time,” Yonkman says, adding that includes the salary and benefits that were offered.

“I didn’t have any bargaining chip in terms of benefits or pay, but I had flexibility up my sleeve.”

Yonkman isn’t the only who shares that perspective. A quiet, but rising trend is happening within the US workforce, as a larger share of those working less than the 35 hours or more a week — often cited as the traditional bar for full-time status — refer to their job as “full time.” According to research from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of those working less 35 hours a week but consider their job full time has more than doubled since 1994.

Even as more workplaces embrace flexible work arrangements, employees are still seeking balance between work and private life. That may be one of the reasons those who work less than 35 hours a week, but still consider it full time is growing, and potentially changing how we define a “full-time job.” More on that soon, but first we have to address what we mean by full-time vs part-time work.

What is full time or part time?

The definition of a full-time or part-time employee, at least for some employers, can be maddeningly vague. For many, the tradition is at least 40-hours per week. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines full time as at least 35 hours. But this definition is only for research purposes.

The Affordable Care Act established a standard of considering 30 hours per week at larger employers full-time workers. But the US Department of Labor notes that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines full-time loosely: “The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not define full-time employment or part-time employment. This is a matter generally to be determined by the employer. Whether an employee is considered full-time or part-time does not change the application of the FLSA.”

Employers have some latitude in how they define full-time status. But legal strictures can vary by employee size or even state.

But BLS data suggests that the cultural definition of full time may itself be in flux.

Is working 30 hours a week the new full-time job?

The BLS generally divides part-time workers into two broad categories in its data collection: voluntary and involuntary. And the majority of the research goes into the involuntary category.

“The rise of the short full-time workweek could be a byproduct of the decades-long shift away from industries that have a traditional 40-hour workweek.”

But voluntary part-time employees (those who work less than 35 hours a week for non-economic reasons) make up the larger share of the part-time workforce. Of the nearly 28 million people who worked part time in 2016, about 77% were voluntary (more than 21 million). In fact, voluntary part-time workers represent about 14% of the total US workforce as of 2016.

There are a variety of reasons people choose to work part-time over full-time, many of which you’d expect. Family or personal obligations and commitments like school top the list in every year measured.

Though the number of part-time workers is relatively flat, one cohort within the workforce has risen rapidly. Those who work less than 35-hours a week, but consider it full-time work that are becoming more prevalent. Since 1994, the number of part-time workers citing this reason has risen from nearly 1.9 million workers to above 3.8 million workers in 2016.

It’s not just a rise in total workers; it’s a bigger percentage of the part-time workforce. It rose from 11% of the voluntary part-time workforce in 1994 to 18% in 2016.

The number of those working part time voluntarily by reason. The data shows that those who consider 35 hours or less per week a full-time job has grown rapidly, more than doubling since 994. Source: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

And the change is taking place across all age groups. Men? The cohort citing short workweeks as full-time jumped from 11% in 1994 to 20% to 2016. Among women, personal or family obligations is the most cited reason for voluntarily working part-time. But the number that cited those obligations shrunk by 10% through 2016, while a short workweek has rose to 18%. Those citing less than 35-hours a week as a full-time job has even grown among teenage and retirees.

Those working 35 hours or less per week that consider it full-time work has risen across age groups and gender cohorts. Source: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

So what’s causing this shift towards a shorter work week? The BLS report posits a couple theories:

“The rise of the short full-time workweek could be a byproduct of the decades-long shift away from industries that have a traditional 40-hour workweek toward those with shorter average weeks, such as retail or leisure and hospitality. It could also possibly reflect employers offering work schedules that more closely match their workers’ preferences for shorter work hours, productivity gains reducing the number of labor hours that employers need, or even a shift in workers’ perceptions of a full-time schedule.”

But the BLS admits the data limits how much it can extrapolate on the trend.

Still, many small business owners say the trend is a natural extension of more workers prioritizing flexibility, especially as the gig economy goes mainstream.

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The rise of the condensed work week

Alex Robinson, General Manager at Team Building Hero, now offers employees the option of a condensed work week, asking most workers to put in 8-hour days four days per week. The company, which provides team-building activities for other businesses, has six full-time employees now, but Robinson says the policy grew out of bringing on part-time workers and independent contractors.

“We worked with freelancers and part time employees and found that these people prioritized flexibility over maximizing a salary or similar,” Robinson notes. “About a year ago, when we started making full time job offers, it was easy to continue.”

But, he adds, that while the policy has likely helped with recruitment, it’s more about employee retention. “It’s more about job satisfaction and making sure our people are healthy and productive for the long term,” Robinson says. We’ve found that our people are enjoying more work life balance, for example pursuing hobbies or more time with their families or outdoors. One excellent surprise is that this policy has also helped with informal team building; our staff have become friends outside of work and do activities together.”

Those who answer the question “what is a full-time job” as more than 35 hours per week likely still outnumber those who would say its less. But there’s no denying this perception is taking hold a larger number of workers. And employers will need to find new ways to adapt to those expectations.

This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to provide legal, regulatory, accounting, or tax advice.

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