In the past, defining a part-time job was pretty simple. Part-time employees were mostly students, so they could only work limited hours given their class schedules. Young parents might also take up part-time employment during their kids’ school hours. These days it’s tricky.
Often, a part-time job is just a full-time job without benefits. You’ll work the same hours as your full-time colleagues, and you’ll be expected to take work home and be available after hours, just like your full-time counterparts. So exactly how many hours is a part-time job?
How Many Hours Is a Part-Time Job?
Option 1: Fair Labor Laws
Every locality has its own definition of full-time and part-time work. For most of us, a full-time job is 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. The typical workday is 8 hours, so that’s 40 hours a week. Other calculations leave out a 1-hour lunch break, bringing the figure down to 35 hours. The IRS says you’re a part-time worker if you clock an average of 30 hours a week or 130 hours a month.
In the US, wages are paid weekly rather than monthly, which is why we use the week as the basis of calculations. The US has detailed labor laws and protections. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act discusses hours, wages, and overtime, but it doesn’t specify how many hours are full-time and how many hours are part-time. It doesn’t address part-time work at all.
Instead, the FLSA sees all jobs as equal, regardless of hours worked, and sets down fair labor practices. On the other hand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects and analyzes employment data, so it needs a metric for full-time versus part-time labor. It uses 35 hours as its threshold. Anything below that is considered part-time work. But this is a data-based metric.
Meaning people who have multiple part-time jobs can be classified as full-time workers. This happens if their total paid work hours add up to 35 hours or more. The reason we’re insisting on paid work is sometimes your boss makes you work 34 hours, just so they can say you’re part-time. In the government’s eyes, it’s up to your boss to categorize you as full-time or part-time.
Option 2: Insurance Regulation
Part-time workers often work as many hours as full-time ones. If they’re in the service industry, they can be called to work without notice or asked to extend their shift. This erratic work-hours can sometimes have them clocking more floor-time that full-time colleagues. But because they’re not a permanent contract, they have no benefits and no job security.
Whether you work full-time or part-time, the most important benefit for many workers is health care. And according to the Affordable Care Act, if you have 50 workers or more, 95% of them should have some form of medical insurance. This means you can be a part-time worker and still be covered. This is helpful because many employees are forced into part-time work.
If they had a choice, they’d get a full-time position, but there aren’t as many available during economic downturns. So for financial reasons, they may work longer than permanent staff. Other workers are forced to work part-time due to family obligations. These workers need health insurance because they’re under a lot of pressure, both at work and at home.
Option 3: Ask Your Boss
Reasonable employers will follow the 40-hour workweek. But the US is a highly driven economy. So even when your contract says 8 hours a day, some people stay in the office for 12 hours or more. Some have been known to clock 80-hour workweeks. In some cases, this is expected, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned. So you won’t necessarily earn overtime.
But the same principle can be used to vaguely define part-time workers. For staff who are paid per hour, it’s not unusual to work longer than permanent employees and still be classed as a part-time worker. This can be frustrating, especially when your boss claims the system is in your favor because you can ‘choose your hours’. Technically, you can … but you can’t afford not to.
If you’re earning per hour and you have high living expenses, then even when you’d rather turn down a shift, you’re under pressure not to. You’re afraid if you refuse, the boss won’t give you extra shifts the net time. So while you’re described as a part-time worker, you end up working full-time hours without the predictability or permanence of a full-time position.
Option 4: Online of Offline
Many people assume work-from-home jobs are part-time. This may refer to stay-at-home-parents or digital freelancers. They don’t go to formal offices and have more control over their time. So they can run errands, pursue hobbies, or spend time with family. In a way, they have more flexibility than part-timers who have to clock into a physical space.
But these online workers sometimes work longer hours than full-time employees. Most online workers are paid per task, not per hour. They may have an hourly billing rate, but their earnings are project-based. And unless you’re lucky enough to secure a regular customer, you’ll spend multiple hours seeking new projects. This job-hunting work doesn’t pay until you land a client.
But it still eats up chunks of your workweek. If it takes you 3 hours to book a 1-hour gig, you’re technically a part-time worker, even though your hours are more punishing than any permanent desk job. Also, because you work from home and have clients rather than employers, you don’t have a supervisor. You can’t argue that ‘bidding should be billable.’ And you don’t get benefits.
Option 5: Minimum Wage
In the US, the minimum wage is about $7 per hour, though some states set it as high as $14 and others push it down to $5. These workers are mostly minors. Teenagers working summer jobs or babysitting after school. Kids can also get positions in the service industry. They’re likely to wait tables or deliver fast food. Retail jobs offer minimum wage as well. They’re often done in shifts.
They’re also largely filled by kids and teens. But as economies slow, adults start to fill these jobs as well. They could be working up to 20 hours a day, but because their pay is so low, their income barely meets the threshold of a part-time job. Plus, minimum wage jobs rarely come with benefits or permanence. You miss a shift, you’re out. No excuses, no notice required.
In that sense, they could be seen as part-time jobs. In terms of hours, you take what you can get. You may do 70 hours one week when your boss is short-staffed or your colleagues are visiting their families over the holidays. You may get 10 hours the next week when gap-year teens are signing up for work experience positions. This inconsistency makes it feel like a part-time job.
Option 6: Hourly, Weekly, or Monthly
Permanent positions include a set salary and pre-agreed benefits. If you go over your stipulated hours, you might earn overtime. Meaning jobs that pay per hour are more likely to be part-time jobs. Sometimes, these jobs are re-positioned as professional consultancies.
A lawyer, doctor, or academic could be hired to advise a client or institution. They’re only needed for a given period. Maybe they’re writing a report, doing some research, or chiming in on a proposed law. They may even be called in for a particular case. So, by definition, they’re part-time workers. And while these gigs can pay extremely well, they’re not regular.
This makes it tough to plan around them. And yet these positions are increasing every day, both at the high-end and at entry-level. There are roughly 300 million people in the US, and close to 10% of them hold some kind of part-time position. So it’s strange that the number of hours involved is still so vague … and sad that all these workers miss out on crucial job benefits.
Option 7: Voluntary or Forced
For some employees, working part-time is a choice. They may switch to flexi-time or telecommuting when they start a family. Or when elderly relatives fall sick. Or when they want to pull back on their work hours and focus on a passion project. For this type of worker, their part-time gig might be 5 to 10 hours a month. And they’re okay with the reduced income.
For others, a permanent position would be ideal. But maybe they don’t have the qualifications needed. Or maybe there just aren’t enough permanent jobs available. Another factor is company policy. In the past, the typical employee’s fear was their job being outsourced to cheaper overseas workers. And politicians still sometimes stoke this rhetoric for leverage.
But these days, the bigger risk is your permanent job being replaced with a temporary role. It saves companies billions because they can get the same quality and volume of work at a fraction of the cost. By sticking with short-term contracts, they spend less on housing, insurance, smartphone packages, and even corporate taxes. And they can let you go at their convenience.
Employees in this position may end up working 3 or 4 part-time jobs during any given 24-hour period. So while you can’t earn the calm that comes with a permanent job, you might still match their full-time income. Just plan your day and pick your gigs carefully to avoid burning out. After all, you don’t have tenure, so if you fall sick or crash, your income shuts down too.
Option 8: Assess Your Industry
A part-time waiter and a part-time professor aren’t on the same level. Both practically and financially. The professor – even if s/he only teaches during the summer – has a predictable class schedule to work with. So they can plan their work-day – and their income. At the other end of the spectrum, a substitute teacher at elementary, middle, or even high school is stuck.
The principal will only call you when someone is sick or otherwise indisposed. You’ll be required in short notice, often for an undetermined period. Once the regular teacher comes back, you’re out. Meanwhile, you’re stuck with rowdy students who know you’ll be gone in hours so they take full advantage and give you a tough time. It can be tricky defining hours for a job like this.
On the other hand, a part-time secretary, typist, personal assistant (PA) or virtual assistant (VA) can specify the number of hours they want to work in a day. What they can’t dictate is the amount of work available. So in that sense, defining your billable hours is complicated. You could be on-call (medic), split your hours (young parent), or work alternate hours (night shift).
Option 9: That’s Showbiz!
In the entertainment industry, back-up dancers and background singers are part-time too – only when their ‘boss’ is on tour. Or when they’re shooting a video. Artistes don’t keep their backers on retainer. So these talented souls have to constantly audition for new roles, and they sometimes go months without significant paying jobs. Actors are like this too.
Whether you’re an extra or an A-lister, you’re technically a part-time hire. You get paid per movie, per play, or episode. Then you stay idle and unemployed until your next casting call. Unfortunately, shooting shows could take a year or more. After this, you may be unemployed for several months. But during the shoot, you may work 23 hours a day on your ‘part-time job’.
It’s why many actors and singers look for alternative income streams. They ride on their fame by selling tangential products to their fans. A fashion line. Jewelry. Perfumes. Endorsement deals. Actors try singing and singers try acting, all to enhance their profile. And what about athletes and other sports professionals? Their jobs are seasonal, so that’s part-time work too!
Part-time or Full-time?
After looking at all this data, what’s the conclusion? How many hours make a part-time job?
- The US government largely leaves this decision to employers. You’ll have to ask your boss what they deem full-time and part-time work.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it’s less than 35 hours a week.
- The Fair Labor Standards Act says part-time and full-time workers have the same rights.
- The Affordable Care Act requires 95% of your staff to be medically insured.
When was the last time you had a part-time gig? Tell us about it in the comments!